Sarah McKinley: 'Biden my time' with crowds outside Belfast's Grand Central for US President's visit

Sarah McKinley in the crowd outside Grand Central hotel where Joe Biden stayed on his trip to NI
Reporter Sarah McKinley in a crowd gathered outside Grand Central Hotel, waiting for US President Joe Biden's convoy to go past. Credit: Pacemaker Press

An insight into covering President Joe Biden's visit to Northern Ireland.

9am. Donegal Square South. Dozens of people were peering up the street at Grand Central Hotel behind Belfast City Hall, as this was where US President Joe Biden was staying on the first night of his four day visit to this island.

Some had camped out for several hours already to try and get a wave from 80-year-old President Biden.

Some were merely 'having a nosey' at the security operation on their way to work.

Seeing our TV camera, a number of people stopped us to ask when the American President would be leaving. Unfortunately, for those in a rush who wanted to see the convoy, we knew it would be several hours, as a meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak scheduled inside the hotel had yet to take place.

11am. By this time, around 200 people were waiting for the presidential cavalcade to leave the hotel on a barricaded Bedford Street. Others looked on from above through the windows of office blocks.

They had their phones at the ready as the fleet was to pass by en route to Ulster University, where President Biden was to give an address at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement.

I was standing among them with UTV camera operator Simon, and asked some of those in attendance why they had taken to the street for the occasion.

Fionn and his dad travelled from Strabane on an early bus with "fingers crossed" they would see President Biden.

Fionn from Strabane boarded a bus to Belfast at 5.50am with his dad for this occasion.

"It's all very interesting, with the police and all that there, you know?

"We got the 05:50am bus this morning especially to see Joe, so fingers crossed we see him."

Admitting that it was exciting to be interviewed for the television, Fionn took the opportunity not just to say 'Hi' to President Biden, but also to his grannies in Tyrone and Newry.

I spoke to a few people who gave up on waiting to go about their days without a sighting of the President, but I doubt if Fionn and his dad were among them, given that they had packed snacks and extra layers.

Anastasia is from California but has been living in Belfast for 23 years.

Anastasia is a Democrat from southern California who has been living in Belfast for 23 years.

"I'm really excited to see Joe because I voted for him," she told me.

"There are so many American ex-pats who are so excited to have this moment where he is in our town."

I asked Anastasia about some protests against the visit.

"I understand the position of the people who live here," she said.

"It's a big thing for them and you can't please everybody.

"It's a difficult thing when you see it from different perspectives of people who might feel that he is invading, but at the same time, he is Irish and his roots are here."

Denison from East Belfast thought that the large scale operation was "exciting".

"I know there's a lot of mixed feeling about him coming," said Denison from East Belfast.

Denison came into the city centre for business, but stayed on to watch the proceedings which he described as rather "exciting".

"Personally think it's a good thing.

"After all, he's a world leader, and I think he should be welcome in Northern Ireland.

"I feel a bit embarrassed for some of our political parties, the attitude they're taking... I think they're not being very fair," he said.

Anne-Marie is from South Belfast and waited four hours to see the president.

Anne-Marie caught my attention with her star-spangled banner.

The south Belfast woman picked a spot at 8am and waited there for four hours. She said she travels to the states often, and hopes to retire there one day.

"I came down to show my support to the President of the USA, and to welcome him to our lovely country," she said.

Our camera spot was right beside the spot that Anne-Marie had selected early doors, and because of her flag, snappers flocked to her for a pic during our hours long stake-out until the cavalcade departed.

Tourist Dion arrived in Belfast today from Bradford.

Dion is from Bradford, and arrived on Wednesday for his holidays. He told UTV that they were planning to visit some local pubs, but that it was "lucky" that he and his friend stumbled upon the visit.

"It's quite lucky actually, because it's only once in a lifetime you get to see the US President," he said, adding that it didn't bother him that roads and some businesses were closed off because of the visit.

Martin dropped his wife into town this morning, but stayed on with his dog Bella to join the crowds.

"We decided to come in and see what was going on," said Martin who braved the cold with his pup Bella.

"It's very good, it's a bit of excitement for the city."

A protestor wears a mask which says that Biden is "not welcome".

I spoke to many people who said they were happy about the visit, and I did not see any protests in the Grand Central vicinity, but it was definitely clear from photos taken elsewhere that there are plenty of people who were against Biden's visit.

Some protesters were located outside Ulster University, carrying Palestine flags and anti-war placards, while on Black Mountain in West Belfast, messages read "Unblock Cuba" and "No 2 NATO".

US President Joe Biden gives a thumbs up to crowds gathered to see him drive through Belfast city centre.

Where I was standing in the city centre though, there were cheers that could be described as subdued when the armoured car called "The Beast" drove past with dozens of bikes, vans, jeeps and cars.

Hours of waiting for some, for a fleeting glimpse of the fleet.