Biden’s Win Gives Ireland Deep-Rooted Ally

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Biden’s Win Gives Ireland Deep-Rooted Ally

The small town of Ballina, Ireland, unveiled a giant pop-art mural in September, honoring an Irish-American whose ancestors lived nearby more than a century ago.

Two months later, that beaming image of Joe Biden was the site of celebration when fans, friends and relatives applauded the U.S. president-elect as the ultimate local boy made good.

“It brought a great sense of excitement to the town of Ballina,” said Laurita Blewitt, 37, a distant cousin, who has grown close to the Bidens in recent years. “Because he’s so passionate about Ireland, it makes it more special for us.”

Laurita Blewitt, Joe Biden’s distant cousin, says the president-elect is passionate about Ireland.

Photo: paul faith/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Not since President John F. Kennedy has Ireland had such a close connection to an American leader, and Mr. Biden—who loves to talk about his roots and quotes Irish poets with abandon—wears his affection on his sleeve. But his ascent also could provide Ireland with a boost on the world stage amid Brexit negotiations and ahead of efforts to revive the global economy as the coronavirus pandemic eases.

“In the president-elect you have somebody that understands the issues that arise in Ireland because he’s been involved in them for a long time,” said Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. “He’s not someone who has to read up on it. He knows it very well.”

The president-elect’s affinity for Ireland has already caused ripples in the U.K., which has long been a key U.S. ally and whose Prime Minister Boris Johnson has enjoyed a close relationship with President Trump.

Mr. Biden’s incoming administration is seen as less supportive of Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, which Mr. Trump openly embraced. And the president-elect has made clear that he is opposed to any exit moves that would jeopardize the Good Friday agreement, the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.

Members of the Electoral College met in all 50 states and the District of Columbia on Monday to formally cast the votes that determine the presidential election. California’s 55 electoral votes put President-elect Joe Biden over the 270 needed to win.

“We do not want a guarded border,” Mr. Biden recently told reporters. “The idea of having a border, north and south once again being closed, is just not right, we’ve just got to keep the border open.”

‘In the president-elect you have somebody that understands the issues that arise in Ireland because he’s been involved in them for a long time.’

— Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S.

Mr. Trump often talked up the possibility of a quick free-trade agreement with the U.K. once Britain’s EU exit was concluded. Mr. Biden, by contrast, said he wouldn’t countenance any trade deal with the U.K. if peace in Northern Ireland was undermined. He also said recently that he is more focused on domestic issues than foreign trade.

Ireland’s prime minister, or Taoiseach, was among the first five foreign leaders Mr. Biden spoke to after he was declared the next president, a signal that Mr. Mulhall called a “big deal.” Mr. Johnson was also among those early calls, and Downing Street has hopes for a close relationship with the incoming administration.

A pub window in Ballina displayed a campaign poster supporting the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris presidential ticket in November.

Photo: clodagh kilcoyne/Reuters

The Scranton, Pa.-born Mr. Biden can trace ancestors back to County Mayo and County Louth in Ireland. According to research conducted by the Irish Family History Centre, his great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt emigrated to America from Ballina in 1850. Another great-great grandfather left the Cooley Peninsula in the late 1840s.

The president-elect has long said that his maternal grandmother used to tell him: “Remember, Joey Biden, the best drop of blood in you is Irish.”

Ahead of a 2016 visit to Ireland as vice president, he wrote: “Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.”

In Ballina, locals hope that the Biden connection will boost business interest in the town and attract tourists.

“It’s been a bit of an underdog town,” said local elected official Mark Duffy, 28, who helped organize the mural of Mr. Biden that was unveiled in September. “We were very keen to demonstrate our pride in a descendant of the town whose family left in a bleak time, worked and lived the American dream and has gone on to hold the highest office in the land.”

Joe Biden greeted local residents during his visit to Ballina in 2016.

Photo: Maxwell Photography/Planet Pix/Zuma Press

Locals remember Mr. Biden’s visits to the country in recent years warmly and describe him shaking hands in pubs for hours and posing for endless photos. On the Cooley Peninsula, Eamonn Thornton, 70, recalled meeting Mr. Biden during his 2016 trip as vice president.

“It was very emotional for him to be in the area where his relations were from,” he said. He also remembered one of Mr. Biden’s security-team members getting out of the car in the small town on the Atlantic and saying, “Where the hell are we?”

“Listen, man, you’re in heaven,” Mr. Biden replied.

Irish public-relations executive Paul Allen has a long relationship with the U.S. Democratic Party, going back to the peace process. He helped organize a portion of Mr. Biden’s 2016 visit to Ireland and this year helmed a campaign to get Irish residents to call their family in the U.S. to encourage them to vote for Mr. Biden.

“People had lots of fun. Because in lockdown Ireland there was nothing for anybody to do. So you’d call a relative in America,” he said, adding that he got a call from Mr. Biden in the fall.

Joe Biden’s Irish relatives and friends posed in front of his mural in Ballina last month.

Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/Zuma Press

“He heard what we were doing in Ireland and he was very appreciative of it,” Mr. Allen said.

For a small nation of 4.98 million, the Republic of Ireland has long enjoyed an outsize influence with the U.S., where 33 million Americans claim Irish descent, many dating back to the exodus in the mid-19th century during the potato famine.

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“Only one head of government around the world has a standing meeting every year with the president,” said U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat whose father is an Irish immigrant, referring to the pomp-laden St. Patrick’s Day visit made by the Taoiseach to the White House every year.

Many U.S. presidents have traced their ties to the country since Mr. Kennedy visited his family in Wexford in 1963.

Mr. Trump’s visits to Ireland have largely centered around his golf course in County Clare. In 2011, President Barack Obama descended on the tiny hamlet of Moneygall, County Offaly, in the Midlands, after researchers discovered a family connection. That visit was later commemorated with the Barack Obama Plaza, a rest stop named in his honor.

Speculation is already running rampant about when Mr. Biden will make his first sojourn as president over. But locals hope they can memorialize him in style. Mr. Duffy, the elected official, said he would like to see a center devoted to studies of the Irish diaspora that brought Mr. Biden’s ancestors to America.

“I think we can do better than a petrol station,” he said.

A Ballina local showed support for Joe Biden in November.

Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Write to Catherine Lucey at catherine.lucey@wsj.com

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