A Home Office minister has insisted the Prime Minister’s interaction with US President Joe Biden in Belfast involved “extensive discussions” – while the White House characterised their talks as “broad” and “general”.
Chris Philp defended Rishi Sunak’s movements on Wednesday amid criticism that the bilateral meeting between the two leaders appeared to have been scaled back to a less formal conversation over a cup of tea.
Touring broadcast studios on Thursday, the minister was asked why Mr Sunak had missed the president’s speech at the Ulster University campus after meeting him in the morning.
“I don’t know exactly what the Prime Minister’s schedule was,” he told GB News.
Later on Thursday, US National Security Council senior director for Europe Amanda Sloat said the leaders had a “broad, general” discussion during the meeting.
They discussed a “number of global challenges”, she said.
Ms Sloat denied that the president was “kept away” from people in Northern Ireland, adding that it was a “briefer stop” than his visit to the Republic of Ireland.
“The president had the opportunity to engage with the leaders of the parties ahead of the speech and others,” she said.
“I can say, as one who sat in the motorcade for about an hour before we left after the speech, the president was on the rope line in Belfast for I think almost an hour, engaging with virtually everybody, it seemed, that was sitting there.”
“The president really enjoyed his time in Belfast,” Ms Sloat added.
Mr Biden’s visit to the island of Ireland continues on Thursday in Dublin, where he is to carry out a series of engagements.
Asked whether he agreed with claims the president was anti-British, Mr Philp replied: “No I don’t. I think the president, when he spoke to the King recently, agreed to come to the United Kingdom on a full state visit, which is fantastic.
Mr Philp also echoed the president’s remarks on powersharing, saying political parties in Northern Ireland should “get around the table” to bring an end to the deadlock.
He described the Windsor Framework as a “huge step forward” by the UK Government which helped to remove obstacles to restoring the executive.
The minister told Sky News: “That was a huge step forward by the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he got that Windsor Framework agreed with the European Union just a few weeks ago. So those obstacles we feel have now been removed.
“So we agree with President Biden, we think the parties should get around the table, restore the powersharing arrangements.”
Mr Philp added that Mr Biden’s remarks that the return of powersharing could unlock new investment were “interesting” and made the case for ending the current paralysis “really strong”.
Mr Biden will address the Irish parliament on Thursday, as well as visiting President of Ireland Michael D Higgins at his official residence in Phoenix Park.
He will also have a meeting with Irish premier Leo Varadkar at nearby Farmleigh House where he will be invited to watch a sports demonstration by young Gaelic games players.