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irish in dc

Varadkar and O'Neill gently raise Gaza message to muted applause from Washington power brokers

The two politicians made brief references and steered away from hard-hitting language in their speeches.

THERE WAS A rousing applause from the crowd at last night’s Ireland Funds dinner in Washington DC when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mentioned Ireland’s support for Ukraine.

During his address at the event, which commands $1,000 per plate, he said the country would stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Varadkar, who kicked back against calls for him to boycott the trip to the US for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations this year, argued at the time that it is better for him to use his voice to speak up in the US.

He used the opportunity yesterday evening to mention the ongoing conflict in Gaza to the hundreds in attendance at the event. 

However, there was a notable difference in the response, with just a lukewarm applause from attendees to the Taoiseach’s comments on the Middle East. 

Describing Ukraine as a “battlefield and a frontier for freedom for the great people of Ukraine”, Varadkar said the people were fighting for freedom and democracy.

“I want you to know that Ireland stands with democracy, stands with liberty and stands with the rule of law,” he said loudly, pledging Ireland’s unwavering support for the country.

A ten-second loud applause followed.

“A little bit further away again, there is another frontier stained by the blood of the innocent and the tears of suffering,” he continued.

“The brutal and indiscriminate attacks carried out by Hamas on Israeli civilians on the 7 October were vicious terrorist crimes and atrocities. And there is no context that explains or excuses them in any way.

“As we sit here tonight in this wonderful building, Palestinian civilians who are not responsible for the crimes of Hamas are being subjected to humiliation and starvation. And that is wrong,” said Varadkar, which encouraged a more muted response from the audience.

Varadkar continued, stating that as Europeans and Americans there is a “duty to do all that we can to bring peace and justice to the Holy Land”.

Earlier in the week, in a strongly worded speech at an event at the JFK Library in Boston, where there were many Irish-Americans attending, Varadkar used his first speech on his trip to the US to call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza

He told the room in Boston that no one can turn away from what is happening to the Palestinian people:

The cries of the innocent will haunt us forever if we stay silent.

“The cries will engender more retaliation and beget more violence and revenge. No child ever gave their consent for terrorist acts. No child should ever be punished for them.

“It is unconscionable that they are dying not just as a result of relentless bombing and destruction, but of hunger and thirst and from an absence of medical treatment and care.”

However, such hard-hitting language was omitted from the Ireland Funds speech last night, an event which attracts high-hitters in American business and power-brokers, such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senators and Congressman from both sides of the aisle in US politics.

It wasn’t just the Taoiseach that failed to hammer home the message when it came to Palestine. 

First Minister Michelle O’Neill, alongside deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly made remarks at the gala.

The Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party pairing took centre stage at the event on Wednesday evening and were strong in delivering a message that Northern Ireland is “open for business”. 

However, O’Neill made passing remarks about the Middle East, in a more understated manner than would be typical of Sinn Fein on the issue of Palestine back home. 

O’Neill said she enjoys the deep relationship she has with the US administration, adding:

I encourage that same constructive, critical partnership in terms of what is happening in the Middle East.

The omission of strong language on the issues at play, such as no reiterations of calls for a ceasefire, was clear to the travelling Irish media at the event last night.

How such comments might land with an audience filled with US politicians who belong to an administration which is directly supporting Israel, with one arm supplying weapons to the Israelis and with the other supplying aid to Gazans, was perhaps too unpredictable for both Varadkar and O’Neill. 

The Taoiseach’s delivery and use of language was miles apart from the Boston speech in the JFK Library on Monday evening, and one could argue that it was an opportunity lost. 

Pledge

While both Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stated prior to making the journey stateside this year that they would use the trip to advocate for the Palestinians, there was no hard-hitting uncomfortable truths mentioned, no powerful statements on the atrocities happening in Gaza said with any conviction. 

Instead, there was talk of the “humiliation” of the Palestinians by Varadkar.

A term which by any measure falls far short of what is taking place on the ground. 

The Journal had the opportunity to question McDonald on why the platform, in front of hundreds of powerful men and women in American politics, was not utilised by O’Neill.

She said at every level within the US administration Sinn Féin has set out “very, very clearly the Irish position and it’s been well understood and well received”.

McDonald added there’s been an understanding that the issue of Palestine “comes with every Irish delegation and that has been the case”.

On Tuesday, McDonald met with Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and said they jointly called for “a ceasefire, an end to occupation and a free Palestine.”

Tlaib was previously censured by the vote of the US House of Representatives for her stance on the conflict, including a video post accusing President Joe Biden of backing “genocide”.  

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McDonald leader said she understands the depth of feeling on the issue of Palestine, stating that she shares those feelings.

“I also feel a huge sense of responsibility to do everything that I possibly can to bring about a ceasefire, to advocate on behalf of the people of Palestine and I will talk to anyone, I will talk to the devil himself, to bring about a halt to the killing of children in Gaza. That’s my job,” she said.

There has been pressure on the Taoiseach to talk tough with the US President Joe Biden and the US administration on Gaza when he meets him on Friday. 

McDonald told The Journal that she has been having “honest conversations” on the issues, adding that “our position on Palestine privately is the same as our public position.”

She maintained that despite Palestine only getting a passing reference by O’Neill in her speech, there was “no doubt or ambiguity” in the room as to her party’s view.

She said the message to the US is it needs to “make a decision” and be “on the right side of history”

“As it stands, that is not the case,” she said.

Political Editor Christina Finn will be in the US throughout the week for the Taoiseach’s visit. Follow @thejournal_ie and @christinafinn8 for all the latest.

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