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Analysis

Did Varadkar do enough in the White House to push for peace and satisfy critics at home?

All eyes were on how the Taoiseach would end the trip and whether his speech would conjure up the true feelings of the Irish people on Gaza.

BEFORE THE TAOISEACH set foot on American soil, there were calls for him to boycott the St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House this year, given the military and financial support the US is providing Israel.

Israel has carried out a relentless bombardment and ground offensive which has killed at least 31,645 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, since the Hamas attack on 7 October. 

Ireland is one of the most vocal supporters of the Palestinian people and was calling for a ceasefire when many other countries were calling for sustained ‘pauses’.

However, now, it looks like the rest of the world is catching up.

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Pressure had been heaped on the Taoiseach over the St Patrick’s Day trip this year to ensure that a message of peace would be delivered to the US administration.

Varadkar said yesterday that there is “more to the shamrock ceremony and St Patrick’s Week” than paddywackery, despite the criticism that handing over a bowl of shamrock to a head of state who supports Israel would be a jarring image broadcast around the world. Throughout the week, Varadkar said Ireland was using the unique opportunity and access to the US President to be a voice for peace.

Increased access to Biden 

Rarely has a Taoiseach been given such access to the US president during the St Patrick’s Day visit.

Varadkar met with Joe Biden on Friday for his meeting in the Oval Office, before sitting with the president during the House Speakers’ lunch on Capitol Hill.

While all these events are routine, the Taoiseach also sat next to Biden at a closed event that Jeff Bezos and the boss of the CIA in Washington DC attended. 

On St Patrick’s Day, Varadkar had brunch with Biden, before being given an impromptu tour of the residence in the White House. The two then participated in the traditional shamrock ceremony. 

Varadkar had the ear of the US president for much of the weekend, but did his whispers of calls for peace in Palestine have an impact?

That was the big question in particular to many people back home, who found it deeply uncomfortable to see Ireland hand-in-hand with the US this week. 

Unlike other St Patrick’s Day trips in the past which have been dominated by domestic matters like Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement, the situation in Gaza overshadowed every event this week, featuring in the majority of speeches given by Varadkar.

The unfortunate photo

taoiseach-leo-varadkar-during-a-visit-to-the-home-of-the-boston-red-sox-at-fenway-park-in-boston-massachusetts-us-during-the-taoiseachs-visit-to-the-us-for-st-patricks-day-picture-date-tuesday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There were lighter moments throughout the week, such as Varadkar’s unfortunate photo at Fenway Stadium in Boston.

The Taoiseach was encouraged to throw a pitch on the day. Thinking he had outwitted the photographers, he declined the invitation. Instead, he was goaded to stick his head out of the the famed “Green Monster” stand in left field, much to the delight of reporters, who captured a winning shot.

While the odd gaffe from the Taoiseach is almost always expected at this stage, the real concern that faced Varadkar this week was how he had to try and thread a needle between making positive remarks about the relationship between Ireland and America as well as sobering comments about the extent of the loss of life in Gaza right now.

president-joe-biden-left-and-irelands-prime-minister-leo-varadkar-right-attend-a-friends-of-ireland-luncheon-on-capitol-hill-friday-march-15-2024-in-washington-ap-photoandrew-harnik US President Joe Biden with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the House Speakers' Lunch on Capitol Hill. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Conveying the message of the Irish people

So did the Taoiseach do a good job of conveying Ireland’s message? 

The week started with a strong speech from Varadkar where he told a packed-out room at the JFK Library and Museum that the “cries of the innocent will haunt us if we stay silent”.

As the week moved on, the Taoiseach was accused of softening his use of words when speaking to big powerful politicos in Washington DC at the Ireland Funds dinner — something he denied. 

There were plenty of opportunities for Varadkar to put Ireland’s position across to some of the most powerful people in the US administration, but as one person on the tour said this week, Leo Varadkar does not appear too comfortable with small talk.

This was evident in one of the first events of the trip, when Varadkar met with the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy on Monday in the JFK Library presidential suite.

After some chat about a small block of the Giant’s Causeway that was once gifted to JFK, Varadkar asked if he could touch the stone. The curator said that it would be fine. 

A few minutes later, when the banter had run out, Varadkar looked around the room, that was dotted with Kennedy memorabilia, and asked where the furniture came from. 

taoiseach-leo-varadkar-centre-is-greeted-by-joe-kennedy-iii-second-left-and-jack-schlossberg-the-only-grandson-of-john-f-kennedy-left-as-he-arrives-at-the-president-john-f-kennedy-library-p Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is greeted by Joe Kennedy III and Jack Schlossberg, the only grandson of John F. Kennedy. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I don’t actually know,” Joe Kennedy replied, looking around the room. Queue all the media quickly being ushered out of the room.

US foreign policy 

Varadkar raised the issue of Gaza in the Oval Office meeting, but the Taoiseach was quick to tell the media afterwards that Biden made it clear to him that the US would continue to supply weapons to Israel.

The Taoiseach told reporters that he struggles to understand why other people are shocked that the US is an ally of Israel, stating that it has been the established foreign policy position of the US for many years.

usa-17th-mar-2024-his-excellency-leo-varadkar-taoiseach-of-ireland-president-joe-biden-and-cardinal-christophe-pierre-apostolic-nuncio-to-the-united-states-enter-the-east-room-during-a-st-pat Taoiseach and Joe Biden at the St Patrick's Day brunch in the White House. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

When asked if he found the deaths of thousands of people in Palestine emotive, he replied:

“Emotive? Yes. And what you do then is you do all you can to work for a ceasefire, to encourage our American and European partners to work towards that, to increase our humanitarian aid for Palestine, which we’ve done.

“So, we’re doing everything we can. That’s practical, given our influence in the world, to push for a ceasefire and lasting peace. I understand why other people may become consumed by anger but it’s never been the way I’ve done my job,” he added. 

Political leadership isn’t about convincing people who agree with you that you’re on their side, it’s about trying to bring people with you who don’t agree with you yet, said the Taoiseach.

us-president-joe-biden-speaking-during-the-st-patricks-day-brunch-with-catholic-leaders-in-the-east-room-of-the-white-house-washington-dc-attended-by-taoiseach-leo-varadkar-during-his-visit-to-the Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The shamrock ceremony yesterday evening was an opportunity for one last push from the Taoiseach to get the message across that an immediate ceasefire must be called. 

Speaking to reporters ahead of the shamrock ceremony, Varadkar said “We’re a small country, we can use our voice” but he pointed out that in “a country that’s big and powerful and influential like America”, they are the only ones that can bring about a ceasefire.

All eyes were on how the Taoiseach would end the trip and whether his speech would conjure up the emotion that many back home believe needs to be conveyed on behalf of the Irish people.

The East Room of the White House was boisterous, to say the least when it came time for the passing over of the bowl of shamrock. One wondered how a serious message about Gaza could be given in a room when there were such raucous cheers about the Six Nations win for Ireland. 

However, the speech the Taoiseach delivered last night hit the right note. It was by far the most hard-hitting of all the speeches on Palestine he had delivered over the last week. 

There was a feeling that Varadkar knew the weight his words needed to carry at such an event. 

“Mr President, as you know, the Irish people are deeply troubled about the catastrophe that’s unfolding before our eyes in Gaza. When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people? And the answer is simple. We see our history and there is a story of displacement, of dispossession.”

He said the Palestinians have a similar story to our own – one of displacement, of dispossession, national identity being denied, forced emigration, discrimination, and now hunger.

‘Need the bombs to stop’

“So we support your work and that of your administration to secure a humanitarian ceasefire and create a great space for lasting peace. The people of Gaza desperately need food, medicine and shelter, and most especially they need the bombs to stop.

“This has to stop on both sides. The hostages brought home and humanitarian relief allowed it,” said Varadkar. 

“The life of a Palestinian child is equal to that of an Israeli one and the aspirations of the Palestinian people to have a homeland and a fully fledged state in the land of their forefathers is equal to that of Israel’s,” said the Taoiseach. 

When there was a call for a ceasefire, there was applause, which is all the Taoiseach could hope for when giving a speech to a room you’re not 100 per cent sure will receive the message well.

At the end of the trip, with all that was said and done, the Taoiseach said he stood over his decision to come to the US this week, stating it would not have been a wise decision to turn down the opportunity.

Varadkar said he had to hope that the coverage of the trip would convey that it isn’t just one day of Irish dancing and shamrocks and that people back home would understand the depth of the programme. 

He said he hoped people back in Ireland didn’t have a misperception that it’s just a single event that lasts for an hour, where speeches are made and a bowl of shamrock is handed over.

When it comes to Gaza, the Taoiseach said there are different perspectives, between Ireland and the US and different perspectives within the US as well. 

He concluded by saying that reflecting on the overall week, he hadn’t encountered anyone that told him he “should tone down our position or that they feel that we’ve gone too far in the comments that we’ve made”. 

That, he said, is reassuring.

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