We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

the shamrock trip

Advice for Leo? We asked two former Taoisigh for some pointers ahead of today's Trump visit

Bertie Ahern and John Bruton reflect on their visits to the White House.

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR is in the US this week, and will be paying the traditional visit to the White House today ahead of St Patrick’s Day.

It’s the main event in a week of engagements in Washington and elsewhere in the US.

The path to the White House is one well travelled by Irish leaders, so, ahead of Varadkar’s first Shamrock ceremony, we thought we might seek out the advice of one or two former Taoisigh.

Bertie Ahern and John Bruton have racked up more than a dozen visits to the White House between them.

Both had similar advice – use your time wisely.

“For a few hours of glory you have a platform,” said Ahern, who was Taoiseach between 1997 and 2008.

It is a huge opportunity that effectively only a handful of countries get.

John Bruton, leader of the Rainbow Coalition government of the mid-90s, said Ireland is incredibly fortunate that there is still a devotion to St Patrick’s Day and a tradition to celebrate it in Washington.

“You get the opportunity to get a message across to the President, across to officials – they will be listening,” he said.

One might not get a favourable response but the seed might be sown that will one day bare bountiful fruit.


The St Patrick’s Day tradition of presenting shamrock to the White House started back in 1952 during Harry Truman’s time in office.

Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, John Hearne, sent a small box of shamrocks to the US President, establishing a tradition that is still observed 66 years later.

And while the first St Patrick’s Day meeting in the White House between a US president and a Taoiseach took place back in 1956, it has only become an annual fixture in more recent decades.

The schedule has changed here and there over the years and across the various administrations, but the annual visit with the US president has remained a part of the tradition.

Last year, pressure was on Enda Kenny to raise Trump’s so-called ‘travel ban’ policy, which happened to be kicking in on the same day as Kenny’s White House visit.

This year, there’s an expectation that Varadkar will address the escalating concerns over a trade war between Europe and the US – as well as issues like LGBT rights.

Bush And Irish PM Ahern Hold Annual St. Patrick's Day Meeting Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern meets former US President George W Bush in the White House in 2008.

During Ahern’s time there were also sensitive subjects to discuss, he explained.

“I was there around the time of the Iraq war so at the time there was a Dáil motion on it, so I raised that.

“You wouldn’t raise an issue for the sake of raising it,” said Ahern. Often, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs would make the case for a particular issue to be raised.

The build up to the war and speculation that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was high on the international agenda at the time, back in 2003.

“I remember just asking the President how sure he was that the threat was true. I think he was surprised that I asked him in such a straightforward way,” said Ahern.

Bush, he recalled, gave him his assessment of the current US intelligence and the administration’s reasoning behind going to war (that analysis, as we now know, turned out to be well wide of the mark).

In terms of other issues discussed with President Bush, and before him President Clinton, Ahern said:

We always raised concerns on things like tax policy, inward investment, any votes coming up in Congress against multinationals – things that would stop things like investment from America. You would go through all that, and it was a great platform.

The Northern Ireland peace process was also, of course, a major topic of discussion.

US President Bill Clinton (L) receives a tradition Former US President Bill Clinton receives a traditional St. Patrick's Day bowl of shamrocks from former Taoiseach John Bruton. AFP / Getty Images AFP / Getty Images / Getty Images

Bruton said his primary focus during his visits with Clinton was also on the nascent peace talks.

“My primary focus was the issue of getting peace in Northern Ireland and to stop the killing.

The IRA were on ceasefire, but even so, there were still killings going on and they had abandoned the ceasefire at one point, so that was my focus during that visit.
During one of the first visits with President Clinton I had the opportunity of meeting George Mitchell, and I asked him to become a special envoy to seek to find a resolution, which he eventually did.

Calls to boycott the visit 

With the election of Donald Trump there have calls for the traditional visits to be brought to an end.

Some opposition politicians here have even called for a boycott of the White House – but both Ahern and Burton agreed that would be a mistake.

“The Taoiseach should go to the White House for St Patrick’s Day,” said Bruton.

“Trump is a controversial figure, but have a very high opinion of the office. And a failure of our Taoiseach to accept an invitation would be seen as a real slight on their country. It is not something that is in our interests to do.

On one occasion I was there for the visit and it was during the second meeting I had with President Clinton that I was told that I had had more meetings with the President than the Canadian prime minister – even though they are far bigger economically for the US and far closer to them.

Irish Prime Minister John Bruton (L) addresses a j John Bruton addresses a joint session of the US Congress AFP / Getty Images AFP / Getty Images / Getty Images

“The visit is hugely important,” said Ahern.

“Even before I was there, I supported John Bruton going to the White House because it opens up huge access with Congresspeople and senators and the president and his wife.”

“It is not just a photocall with the bowl of shamrock,” he said

“Apart from the shamrock ceremony, there are functions with key people from the Irish-American businesses.

When the Democrats were in, the room would be full of Democrats, and when Republicans were in, the room was full of Republicans, so I would often go in and ask ‘where are all my friends from last year?’.

US President Bill Clinton (R) listens to Irish Pri Former US President Bill Clinton listens to Bertie Ahern's speech on St Patrick's Day 1999 AFP / Getty Images AFP / Getty Images / Getty Images

Good Friday 

Clinton, who was one of the major figures behind the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent peace efforts in the North, addressed a special event this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 deal.

Speaking via video to the Washington event, Clinton called urged modern day leaders to “reflect on their responsibilities” to protect peace in Northern Ireland.

“When I was there as Taoiseach I very much emphasised to the US administration to reach out to both communities, not just the one side in the dispute which had the effect of exacerbating the dispute,” Bruton recalled.

I said it was important for the US administration to reach out to the unionists and the nationalists. Clinton and Bush were very constructive in doing this.

Ahern, meanwhile, said he believed work needs to continue to get the DUP and Sinn Féin back into power-sharing.

I think we have to keep at it, get dialogue between all the parties going again, and try and try again.

To have a Taoiseach making that case with US politicians can only help move the process along, he said.

“It is vitally important in any democracy to have a place of representation whether it is the Dáil, Seanad, Capitol Hill or Westminster.

The buildings are here [in Stormont] and yet there is no one in the buildings. It’s a pity.’s political reporter Christina Finn will be bringing you all the latest updates from Leo Varadkar’s visit to Washington this week, including his meeting with US President Donald Trump on Thursday.

Stay up-to-date by following @ChristinaFinn8@TJ_Politics  and’s Facebook page.  

Read: ‘I carry Ireland with me everywhere I go’: Leo likely to indulge Pence and Ryan with talk of Irish roots >

Read: Leo: ‘There are many of Donald Trump’s policies with which I do not agree’ >

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel