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Washington DC

Can ministers deliver Ireland’s message on Gaza during US paddywhackery?

The Taoiseach will need to tread carefully on his trip stateside this week.

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR is to travel to the United States tomorrow and will make two visits to the White House as part of the St Patrick’s Day engagements in Washington DC. 

It is tradition for ministers and ministers of state to travel to different places around the world to mark St Patrick’s Day.

However, the Taoiseach and other ministers travelling to the US in the coming week will have a delicate path to walk in light of the conflict in Gaza and the role the US is playing in terms of supporting the Israeli government. 

This is juxtaposed alongside the annual St Patrick’s Day festivities, which is traditionally full of pomp, Irish dancing and general paddywackery. 

There is no doubt about the fact that business does take place over the week-long events, with many stateside describing Ireland as one of the most powerful ‘soft powers’ in the world, with enviable access to the US president. 

In the run up to the visit, there have been calls for the Taoiseach, government ministers, and other political parties, such as Sinn Féin to boycott the trip this year. 

Critics argue that the handing over of the shamrock to US President Joe Biden will be a jarring image to be beamed around the world, particularly given Ireland’s strong support for Palestine. 

TD Paul Murphy and Mick Barry have continuously said that all politicians, including in Sinn Féin, should boycott the week. 

The Taoiseach and others say they would rather use their voice while in Washington to advocate for the Palestinian people, something the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland also supports. 

However, the Taoiseach will need to tread carefully on this trip.

One misstep, one ill-thought-out event, and Varadkar will face significant criticism back home. 

He will need to choose his words carefully and for every speech he gives and each event in the itinerary, he will have to mention and shine a spotlight on the dire situation facing the Palestinian people. 

On 15 March, US President Joe Biden will host Varadkar for a bilateral meeting. The Taoiseach is also set to attend the Irish Funds dinner in Washington DC on 13 March, a gala dinner which costs $1,000 per plate.

US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff will host the Taoiseach and his partner Matthew Barrett for a breakfast at the Naval Observatory on 15 March.

Varadkar will then attend the St Patrick’s Day celebration at the White House on 17 March, which will include the traditional shamrock ceremony. 

When put to the Tánaiste this week that the footage of shamrocks, Irish dancing, ‘craic agus ceol’ might present an extremely jarring image, particularly when government representatives are also speaking about potential war crimes being carried out in Gaza, Micheál Martin said the government is very aware of the sensitivities at play next week. 

‘Conscious of sensitivities’

“I’ve never been one for sort of being shy about saying, Ireland and America are close friends and partners in so many areas. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree on issues or argue about issues or dispute issues, but we will be very conscious of the sensitivities of the fact that there’s a war going on in Gaza right now, which is having horrible and terrible consequences for the people of Gaza,” he told The Journal.

He added: “And of course, there will be appropriate sort of marking of the occasion.”

Martin said there is no doubt that dialogue and engagement with leaders all over the world on the question of the war on Gaza is “absolutely essential”, stating that the idea of boycotting such meetings with the president of the United States or Secretary of State is “absurd”.

Such a position doesn’t advance the case of Palestinians, he said, adding that Ireland has demonstrated very strong leadership on the issues.

“We’re very aware of the strife and the death and the destruction and it’s a dire situation in Gaza. So it’s very important that we engage at all levels in the United States on this,” he said. 

“I do want to make the point that apart from Gaza, the United States is a very important partner to Ireland. First of all, we have historical links, in terms of all of those who emigrated over the generations and the Irish American diaspora is a very large one, influential one and important one, and we should never be shy in acknowledging what is a very important partnership and that familial sort of generational link, but also then the economic link is extraordinarily strong and then the social and the cultural, as well, and that’s just the reality of it,” said Martin.  

‘An opportunity to get our message across’

While the Taoiseach will be in Boston and Washington DC in the coming week, Justice Minister Helen McEntee will travel to New York for the St Patrick’s Day events. 

She is due to do a reading at the annual mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue. 

She told The Journal that these trips are not just an opportunity to sell Ireland but also to get our message across.

“I’m traveling to New York next week and the first speaking engagement that I have is at the UN for a conference taking place on women and girls and where I’ll be raising this issue [Gaza conflict] specifically, where I’ll be meeting with representatives from women’s groups, including Palestine, at a lunchtime discussion.

“So these kinds of conversations are taking place during St. Patrick’s Day visits, and it gives all of us an opportunity to reiterate the very clear message that Ireland has been making. The message that I made with my justice colleagues in Europe, and that is there should be an immediate ceasefire, that all hostages should be released and that there should be safe, sustained, secure humanitarian aid brought into Gaza, in particular at Raffah, given the dire situation there.

“So these trips are a really important opportunity for us to be able to use our voice to engage in every way that we can to try and bring about those very clear needs,” she said. 

Political Editor Christina Finn will be in Boston and Washington DC this week. Follow @thejournal_ie and @christinafinn8 for all the latest.