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Beneath green shamrocks and fluff of St Patrick's Day lies Ireland's soft power busy at work

Ireland sees cringeworthy flattery of the US as warranted if it achieves the end goal.

Christina Finn reports from Washington DC

IRELAND IS THE hardest soft power in the world – that’s how one US reporter in the White House described the quiet, under the radar influence that our small country displays on St Patrick’s Day. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar joked that Ireland’s strong ties to America has allowed St Patrick’s Day to become a week-long event for Irish politicians who go around the world each year, but nowhere is it more important that in the US. 

Admittedly, every year there is a lot of criticism about the money spent on politicians jetting around the globe to spread the Irish message. But there is no denying that it is money well spent when it comes to the soft power it exudes on the White House. 

This is particularly evident at a time when there is so much at play, with the Windsor Framework hanging in the balance.

But the subtle undertones didn’t just begin on St Patrick’s Day – on Monday, former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke in New York about how the Windsor Agreement hopefully means moving forward to reestablish the Executive.

She reminisced about her time in Belfast in the 90s and about how her husband’s decision to grant Gerry Adams a US visa made all the difference in speeding up the peace process. Adams’ visa was mentioned multiple times this week by the US side as being a turning point that meant the slow progress of peace might actually be achieved. 

At the event in New York she spoke to a room of influential Americans, saying that their advocacy was now needed as much as ever, adding that there was a need for voices demanding that “we listen to each other, no matter how difficult it might be”.

WhatsApp Image 2023-03-14 at 12.36.44 Tánaiste speaking with Hillary Clinton and Loretta Glucksman in NYC.

While St Patrick’s week in the US this year was initially viewed as an opportunity for Ireland to make its case for additional support to get all sides around the table and get a deal done, it became apparent this week that Americans view the Good Friday Agreement as one – if not the most – successful US foreign policies it has undertaken in the last quarter of a century. 

Strength of US voices

Clinton made this clear when she said that it is important that the US voices up their ante by displaying that they are “committed to conflict resolution, whenever and however we can, and that we keep in mind, the role … our country, our government played in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland”. 

Tánaiste Micheál Martin spoke about Ireland and the UK’s obligation to safeguard the values and structures built in the North: “We each have a duty to nurture the peace.”

WhatsApp Image 2023-03-14 at 16.15.20 Tánaiste speaking to CNN this week ahead of St Patrick's Day.

However, moving through the week, there were references to the US being the “third guarantor” to the Good Friday Agreement. 

It was fast becoming apparent, that when it comes to peace in Northern Ireland, seeing Brexit through and getting a deal done on the Windsor Framework, the US very much has skin in the game on this one. 

The Good Friday Agreement is one foreign policy the US points to when it speaks of diplomacy, compromise and creating a peace, that lasts. 

Biden visit to Ireland 

With the 25th anniversary of the agreement approaching, and with a visit by US President Joe Biden confirmed to coincide with it, it is understood the US side want to be able to point to a working agreement and a deal done on the Windsor Framework that will see the institutions in the North back up and running. 

With a vote taking place in Westminster next week on the framework, and with the DUP stating that the deal is still not acceptable, it’s notable that for the first time ever, the US president met with all five leaders of the Northern Ireland parties this week in Washington. 

While the St Patrick’s Day week is full of cringeworthy moments, from the green ties and gunas, to the mentions of family roots in the home country, as well as countless Guinness references, underneath the fluff there’s serious business being done. 

The Taoiseach gave five speeches on St Patrick’s Day – each one different – and each mentioning the importance of working the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that we find ways to make it work. 

taoiseach-leo-varadkar-speaking-during-a-breakfast-meeting-hosted-by-us-vice-president-kamala-harris-at-her-official-residence-in-washington-dc-in-washington-dc-as-part-of-his-visit-to-the-us-for-s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking during a breakfast meeting hosted by US Vice President Kamala Harris at her official residence in Washington DC. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The support from the top-level was first seem at the Vice President Kamala Harris’s breakfast with the Taoiseach she said: “As President Biden has said, the Windsor Framework is an essential step to ensure peace and progress and to ensure that it is strengthened and preserved… he takes these issues very seriously”.

Top-level US support

Northern Ireland was again referenced in the Oval Office, with the Taoiseach stating that the position the US took on Brexit really made a difference to Ireland, in terms of ensuring there could be no hard border on the island of Ireland.

At the House Speakers’ lunch on Capitol Hill, Biden spoke candidly enough about what he’d like to see come to pass. Looking down towards the table which Mary Lou McDonald and Jeffrey Donaldson were sharing at the lunch, he said the Windsor Agreement is a “vital vital step” that’s going to help ensure all people realise their full potential.

“I think we have a chance to make a difference,” he added.

“There’s no reason why we can’t find find common ground,” he said. 

taoiseach-leo-varadkar-left-at-a-bilateral-meeting-with-president-joe-biden-at-the-white-house-in-washington-dc-during-his-visit-to-the-us-for-st-patricks-day-picture-date-friday-march-17-2023 Taoiseach Micheál Martin meets US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

That evening, at the traditional shamrock ceremony, which has a notably lighter tone to the rest of the day’s proceedings, the Taoiseach, who has been careful not to speak out of turn this week (on Northern Ireland) for fear of scuppering any agreement, spoke about what the role the US has played in the past and must play right now.

“At especially difficult or fragile moments in the search for peace, successive Presidents – from both sides of the aisle – stepped in with words of encouragement and hope, a hand on the shoulder or a gentle shove in the right direction,” said Varadkar.  

“Now we have to complete that work to fulfil the agreement’s promise not just of peace but also reconciliation, build a shared island together,” he said.

The Taoiseach highlighted the potential he saw in the new Windsor Framework struck by the EU and UK.

“I believe there are now incredible opportunities for economic development in Northern Ireland, especially with the potential of the Windsor Framework recently agreed with the European Commission and the UK Government,” he said.

“Our task now is to complete that mission to help the people of Northern Ireland to build a more peaceful and more prosperous future together.”

taoiseach-visit-to-the-us Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right) presents US President Joe Biden with a bowl of Shamrock during a St Patrick's Day Celebration reception. PA PA

This week is all about subtlety, of carefully dancing around the elephant in the room, but ensuring that the message under the surface is loud and clear. 

Two gifts were given to the the US vice president and president this St Patrick’s Day. A silver peace bell for Harris and an Irish tricolour for the Biden. 

The flag has been flown just once before in Waterford, at an event earlier this month to mark the 175th anniversary of the first flight of our flag in Ireland.  

Varadkar told the US president that the very first Irish tricolour was flown in Waterford by Thomas Francis Meagher, a 24-year-old idealist, who later fought for freedom in this country in some of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.   

“His bravery – and that of the Irish Brigade – was so great, that when President Lincoln visited one battlefield, he kissed the Irish colours saying ‘God Bless the Irish Flag’”. 

“I hope this flag will find a permanent home in this House as a reminder of the unbreakable bonds between our countries and our people.  It represents our values and our history as well as our faith in what we can achieve together in the future,” Varadkar said in the East Room of the White House. 

Ireland’s soft power

So yes, the St Patrick’s Day hoopla on the surface is full of fluff, shamrocks, speeches about the home country, and symbols. But the symbols mean something. They hammer home the message of the role Ireland sees the US playing as we move forward. 

Perhaps there is a lot of back slapping for the role the US played in the Good Friday Agreement, a deal that was hard won, with all sides have equally important parts to play in it.

But the Irish side sees the flattery of this week as being warranted, if it achieves the end goal. Biden said this week, that Ireland is the only country that is “nostalgic for its future”. 

Varadkar’s job this week was making sure the message was made clear that in difficult and fragile moments in the search for peace, the US was there for Ireland before, and it needs to step up again. 

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