St Patrick's Day

Taoiseach says Biden 'can't wait to come back to Ireland' but no date set for visit

Officials would like to get the Taoiseach back to Washington later in the year with another trip to the White House perhaps on the cards.

LAST UPDATE | Mar 18th 2022, 3:31 PM

Political Correspondent Christina Finn reporting from the United States. 

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said it is a matter for the US President Joe Biden when he wants to return for a visit to Ireland.

It had been widely expected that Biden might announce a date for when he plans to visit Ireland during the Taoiseach’s visit to Washington for St Patrick’s Day.

However, it has been confirmed that no date was set or mentioned during their virtual meeting yesterday.

Martin said it is up to the president and when Biden believes “the time is most opportune to come”.

“We leave that with the president, but he knows and he can’t wait to get back,” the Taoiseach said, saying that during their conversation, Joe Biden recalled fond memories of his visits to Ireland.

“In fact, he commented on how his parents, in particular, loved their visit to Ireland which his family organised some years back, and he has a great empathy with us and a great sense of what we are about, and very fond memories of those occasions when he’s been to Ireland, but particularly with his families in Mayo and Louth,” he said. 

During his Ireland Funds dinner speech, Biden spoke about Irish roots. 

“I inherited my mother’s side of the family’s overwhelming pride — overwhelming pride in being Irish — a pride that spoke to both continents’ heart and soul, and drew from the old and the new,” he said. He also chronicled more stories of his Irish family history during his speeches at the White House and Capitol Hill yesterday.

The Taoiseach first invited the US president to visit Ireland when Biden was elected in November 2020. 

During that phone call, Biden is understood to have spoken proudly about his Irish heritage. His ancestors emigrated from Mayo and Louth.

When the invitation was extended to Biden, he replied “try and keep me out”, according to the Taoiseach.

The last US president to visit Ireland was Donald Trump in 2019. Trump and his wife Melania spent two nights at his Doonbeg hotel and golf resort in Co Clare.

During his visit, he also held a bilateral meeting with the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. 

In May 2011, US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle visited Ireland. There was much more fanfare over the visit, with thousands of people turning out in Dublin to catch a glimpse of Obama. 

The Obamas travelled to Moneygall, Co Offaly to visit the small village which is his ancestral home.

Covid shadow 

The Taoiseach has endured a long and frustrating wait to secure the prized St Patrick’s Day invite to the White House. However, the trip has not gone to plan.

While he received the warmest of welcomes during his American adventure this week, widely praised for the firm stance he has taken on the Ukrainian crisis and receiving a sympathetic hearing for his arguments in defence of the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, the shadow of Covid never seemed to be far away.

On Tuesday night, Martin appeared at a Tourism Ireland event where he declared that the island was once again open for international visitors as the tourism industry recovers from the devastating impact of the pandemic, before watching a performance of one of the country’s most famous exports, Riverdance.

The following day, in words that were to prove prophetic, he cautioned people ahead of St Patrick’s Day that Covid had not gone away.

He urged people to “be comfortable in what you’re doing and take basic precautions in terms of your own health and in terms of the Covid situation”.

The main build-up to the celebrations for the patron saint began on Wednesday night with the glittering 1,000 US dollars-a-head Ireland Funds Gala dinner in the magnificent setting of the US capital’s National Building Museum.

Excitement for the extravagant black-tie fundraising event was heightened when it was revealed that Biden was to make an appearance, a demonstration of his particular interest and affection for Irish affairs.

As the president delivered a crowd-pleasing speech, he often singled out Martin, sitting directly in front of him, for praise.

The first sign that the Taoiseach was about to upstage the president emerged during a speech delivered by Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi.

She was due to present Martin with an award, but when the time came for him to ascend to the stage, Pelosi seemed to stumble over her words, cryptically indicating that the Taoiseach was not available to accept the accolade as he “is on call as one of the leaders in the world”.

Instead, the Irish Ambassador to the US, Daniel Mulhall, approached the podium and, in more plain terms, announced to a stunned crowd of 700 that the Taoiseach had tested positive for Covid and had left the building.

The shock news was still being digested when thoughts quickly turned to what would happen the next day when a carefully-orchestrated series of events had been planned at the White House and Capitol Hill with Martin as the St Patrick’s Day guest of honour.

Irish embassy and White House officials began a fevered set of discussions to formulate alternative arrangements.

It quickly became clear that the bilateral meeting between the president and Taoiseach and the historic shamrock presentation would have to be carried out virtually once again.

Last year, the two leaders were separated by an ocean, this year by the width of a Washington street with the Irish premier marooned at Blair House, the president’s official guest house.

The subjects for the virtual meeting were the same as if they had met face-to-face – Ukraine, economic links, the Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit.

But much of the prestige of the event comes from sharing the Oval Office with the world’s most powerful man. Instead, as Biden sat next to a bowl of shamrock,  Martin peered out from a TV screen.

The Taoiseach may not have made it to the prestigious Oval Office, but one Irish sports star did make it in to meet President Biden.

Irish rugby player Rob Kearney is believed to have had an extended meeting with Biden to mark St Patrick’s Day:

Later, as he addressed the media on a Zoom call from self-isolation, the Taoiseach spoke with candour. He admitted his disappointment but said it was “not the end of the world” and had to be put in the context of some of the major problems around the globe.

He will now miss the Covid commemoration event in Dublin tomorrow and will have to remain in the US for ten days due to isolation rules.

Today, a spokesperson for the Taoiseach said “he is feeling well and continuing with his work in Washington”.

This included a phone call with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau where the two leaders discussed the conflict in Ukraine, and the need to move away from relying on gas from Russia.

It’s understood Micheál Martin is set to move from Blair House to the ambassador’s residence shortly to complete his Covid isolation while in the US.

One source from his delegation said they are taking it “day by day” to see how long the Taoiseach will have to isolate while testing positive for the virus.

It is understood that officials would like to get the Taoiseach back to Washington later in the year before his role rotates back to Leo Varadkar. If this happens, officials are looking to rearrange a  trip to the White House for Micheál Martin later this year.

The Taoiseach received a warm welcome when here, so it is a possibility, said another source, who added it couldn’t be ruled out.

Martin’s time in office has come to be defined by Covid. When he was elected Taoiseach in 2020, restrictions meant his family could not be at his side. Much of the time since then has been spent trying to deal with the health, political and economic impact of the pandemic.

This week his wife Mary and eldest son Micheal Aodh accompanied him to Washington, seemingly a symbol of the long-awaited return to normality.

But on this occasion, as in so many others during Martin’s time as Taoiseach, the shadow of Covid was to prove impossible to escape from.

Contains reporting from PA.

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