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Leo's meeting with Pence makes global headlines as Taoiseach avoids gaffes in Washington

The Taoiseach’s visit to Pence’s house, alongside his long-term partner, dominated coverage yesterday.

Image: Brian Lawless

Christina Finn reports from Washington DC:

SLICK, POLISHED AND for everything to go off without a hitch – that’s what Varadkar was hoping for in Washington after things didn’t exactly work out that way last year.

You may recall the tenor of the domestic headlines exactly 12 months ago today after the  Taoiseach joked at a Capitol Hill lunch about intervening on behalf of Donald Trump in order to stop a wind farm being built near Doonbeg.

This time around, the traditional schedule of Washington events went more smoothly.

Notably, headlines in the international press were dominated by the Taoiseach’s breakfast meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. 

Pence, who has been criticised for his views and his legislative record on LGBT rights, told Varadkar last year that his partner, Matt Barrett, would be welcome at his official residence at this year’s St Patrick’s breakfast. 

And speaking at the event – which was open to press, in a departure from last year – the Taoiseach gave remarks noting that in modern day Ireland politicians were judged not by their sexual orientation, “skin tone, gender or religious beliefs” but by their actions. 

The Washington Post noted in its piece: “This is the first time that Pence has hosted the partner of an openly gay world leader at his residence, though that may simply be a reflection of their low numbers.”

The headline in The Guardian observed that Varadkar had delivered “pointed remarks on sexuality”. 

The Daily Beast stated: ‘Mike Pence Meets With Ireland’s First Openly Gay Prime Minister’. 

Business Insider was a little more direct with it’s headline: 

‘The Irish Prime Minister brought his boyfriend to meet Vice President Pence’

post1 Source: daragh

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 2 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Pence, and his sister Anne (Pence’s wife is away at the Special Olympics) welcomed the couple, making small talk in front of the cameras. 

There was some speculation over whether Varadkar would mention the issue of gay rights – but his comments on the issue, delivered from a podium as the vice president looked on, were to the point. Pence is deeply religious, so it’s notable that Varadkar rolled out the expression ‘all God’s children’. 

He told the guests he had always been fascinated by US politics “in many ways it helped to inspire me to believe in the power of politics to do good because ultimately that is what politics is all about”.

“It helped inspire me to run for office. I also knew at the time that I lived in a country where if I tried to be myself, at the time I would have ended up breaking laws.

“But today that has all changed. I stand here as leader of my country, flawed and human, where I am judged by my political actions and not my sexual orientation, my skin tone, gender or religious beliefs.

“And I don’t think my country is the only one in the world where this story is possible. It is found in every country where liberty is cherished.

We are, after all, all God’s children and that is true of the United States.

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 2 Source: Brian Lawless

Of course, the breakfast was dotted with the usual talk of Irish ancestry, with Pence stating that he yearned to return to his homestead in Ireland, adding that plans are underway for his mother and him to return this year.

The Taoiseach said he was delighted that the vice president had decided to take him up on his invite, and that he would happy if they could visit Ireland. Varadkar also commended Pence’s mother, who still has a cúpla focal

Gaffe free 

The Taoiseach managed to avoid the gaffes of last year, limiting the jokes and anecdotes and keeping the mood rather serious in his speech on Capitol Hill.

The lunch is one of only two official occasions each year that the US president visits the Hill.

Taking to the podium, Trump said he had gotten to know his “friend” Varadkar “very well” in recent years, telling the crowd that he could barely believe this was his third St Patrick’s Day as president.

While there were tributes to the Irish diaspora, their hard-work and inspiration to America, the focus, just as it had in the Oval Office earlier, turned to Brexit.

Trump said Brexit is “turning out to be a little more complex than they thought it will be, but it’s all going to work out. It always does.” 

He thanked Varadkar for briefing him on Ireland’s position, and said he respected the country’s position.

Earlier, sitting alongside Varadkar at the White House, Trump told reporters that he was surprised at just how badly Brexit negotiations had gone.

He also claimed to have offered his advice to Theresa May, but said she didn’t listen to it (he didn’t expand on the nature of the advice). 

There was notable tension in the air in the White House when Trump let rip into the EU for treating the US “badly”.

“They are willing to talk to us and if they don’t talk to us we are going to do something that is going to be pretty severe economically… they have treated us very badly,” said Trump, who then threatened to tariff European products.

At the lunch, Trump said Brexit had turned out to be a little more complex than expected, but he thanked the Taoiseach for bringing him up to speed.

While the UK’s exit from the EU dominated, Varadkar managed to get one other Irish issue into his speech: the E3 Visa.

The visa is currently only offered by the US to Australian citizens. Because Australians only use about half of their allotment, Ireland is seeking access to the remainder of the unused visas.

“I believe the new E3 visa programme is true to our shared history and offers a chance for a new generation of talented, hard-working dreamers to give something to this great country. I hope that will come to pass,” said Varadkar. 

Later it emerged that Trump had personally spoken to the sole senator holding up progress on the issue. 

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 2 Varadkar with House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

There were some slightly odd, freewheeling comments from Trump later at the traditional shamrock ceremony, when the President observed of the Irish

“They’re smart. They’re sharp. They’re great. And they’re brutal enemies!”

Varadkar, in his own speech, congratulated Trump on the “booming” American economy.

“Your ambition is to make America great again, and we can see the results today,” Varadkar said.

The American economy is booming. More jobs. Rising incomes. Exactly what you said you’d do. American military power is unrivalled.

Leo Varadkar visit to US - Day 2 Matt Barrett, the partner of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, listens to speeches during a St Patrick's Day Celebration reception and Shamrock presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington D.C. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

In the crowd, that peculiarly Irish-American phrase “top of the mornin’ to ya” could be heard. 

But aside from that and Trump’s awkward pronunciation of Varadkar’s title (‘Tea-SHOCK’ … it had been spelt phonetically on the autocue) there weren’t too many cringeworthy moments this year, compared to the last few visits. 

Nothing close to, for instance, Paul Ryan and the Worst Pint of Guinness Imaginable.

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TheJournal.ie’s Political Correspondent Christina Finn will be bringing you all the latest updates from Leo Varadkar’s visit to Washington DC this week.

Stay up-to-date by following @christinafinn8@TJ_Politics  and TheJournal.ie’s Facebook page

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