Who were the Black and Tans? Joe Biden Ireland rugby gaffe explained as President gets All Blacks confused

Many of the Black and Tans gained a violent reputation during the Irish War of Independence

The Royal Irish Constabulary inspects a group of Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the RIC, in 1921  (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)The Royal Irish Constabulary inspects a group of Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the RIC, in 1921  (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
The Royal Irish Constabulary inspects a group of Black and Tans, an armed auxiliary force of the RIC, in 1921 (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The White House says it was “very clear” to Irish rugby fans that US President Joe Biden was referring to the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks, when he made a mistaken reference to “the Black and Tans”.

Biden is currently on a four-day visit of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement effectively brought The Troubles to a close in 1998, with Biden saying that the main purpose of the trip was to “keep the peace”.

But during a speech at a County Louth pub on Wednesday, Biden appeared to confuse the name of the New Zealand team with a contentious War of Independence-era police force in Ireland. It wasn't the President's only gaffe of the trip either, with Politico reporting Biden described Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin - stood beside him - as “a proud Louthman” despite being from Cork, and appeared to think Martin was still Taoiseach, a role he left in December.

But who were the Black and Tans, and how have people in Northern Ireland reacted to the gaffe?

Who were the Black and Tans?

The Black and Tans is a name for part-time officers recruited to bolster Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) numbers during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s - many of whom gained a violent reputation.

They were named for the colour of the makeshift uniforms they were issued, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Many were former British soldiers, and enrolled in the force after large numbers of Irish police resigned.

In seeking to counter the terrorism of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Black and Tans carried out brutal reprisals. The most well-known was the 1920 "Bloody Sunday" incident.

The IRA had killed 15 people in a targeted attack on what they called the "Cairo Gang" - a group of undercover British intelligence agents living in Dublin. Two civilians were also killed in the attacks.

The Black and Tans retaliated the same afternoon, opening fire on spectators at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, Dublin. A total of 14 civilians were killed - including two children - and 60 others were wounded.

The RIC and the Black and Tans were disbanded in 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.

Did Biden realise his mistake?

Biden corrected himself immediately after the gaffe. Grimacing, he continued: “Ah God – but, but it was when you were at Soldier Field, wasn’t it? Chicago?

Asked if he realised his mistake, National Security Council senior director for Europe Amanda Sloat said: “It was clear what the president was referring to, it was certainly clear to his cousins sitting next to him." Biden was standing near former Irish rugby international and his distant relative Rob Kearney, who had played in the rugby union match being discussed.

The White House has already had to refute claims the US President - who is proud of his Irish heritage - is anti-British. Biden had been criticised by senior DUP figures, with MP Sammy Wilson claiming the president “has got a record of being pro-Republican, anti-Unionist, anti-British” while former first minister Baroness Foster has suggested he “hates the UK”.

But the suggestion was rejected by Ms Sloat, who said: “It’s simply untrue – the fact that the president is going to be engaging for the third time in three months, and then again next month and then again in June, with the Prime Minister of the UK shows how close our co-operation is with the UK."

What has the reaction been across the island of Ireland?

While US media like the New York Post have panned Biden's slip-up as a "cringeworthy gaffe", local media have been more forgiving.

The Guardian reports most commentary seemed to view it as funny and harmless. Video clips have been shared widely on Twitter, with some users called it a highlight of the trip. “A fantastic Freudian slip. Good lad Joe,” said one. "Stay tuned. Tomorrow Irish Rugby and the potato famine," another said.

One user said: "This is not a gaffe. Rugby is indeed worse than burning Cork. Complete solidarity with Biden at this time."

The Irish Times described it a “delicious gaffe”, while the Irish Mirror said Biden had left people “in stitches”.