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Ireland's 'soft power' used to remind US it helped bring peace before and could do so again

All eyes were watching Leo Varadkar to see if he convey the message from the Irish people and push for peace in Palestine.

ON CAPITOL HILL this afternoon, the St Patrick’s Day shamrocks, green gúnas and ties were out in force. 

There were bagpipes at the ready and even a rendition of a U2 song which was performed by acclaimed Irish violinist Greg Harrington. 

As The Journal has been in the Rayburn Room on Capitol Hill for the last six years covering the St Patrick’s Day Washington DC visits, we know this day is usually filled with ‘craic agus ceol’ vibes. 

Today, the Taoiseach knew he had a clear message to deliver on Gaza, despite the usual celebratory tone of the event.

Months before the Taoiseach set foot near the White House, there were calls for the boycott of the visit given the conflict in Palestine, and the military support the US is providing Israel.

But Leo Varadkar argued that he would rather use his voice to set out Ireland’s position on the trip rather than give up the unique opportunity Ireland has every year. 

The Taoiseach is the envy of many world leaders given the access he has to one of the most powerful men in the world, US President Joe Biden.

Every year, without fail, he has a meeting in the diary in March with the US president.

All eyes on Varadkar 

All eyes were on the Taoiseach back home to see if he would, as he said, use his voice to convey the deep, heart-wrenching anguish and anger the Irish people feel when they see the images of Gaza flooding their social media and TV screens. 

This year, more than most, pressure was placed on Varadkar’s shoulders to speak out, not about the likes of domestic matters, like Brexit or the Good Friday Agreement, but international affairs.

Varadkar’s language in a speech given in Boston this week, when he said the “cries of the innocent will haunt us forever if we stay silent” was strong, but an address he gave to the annual Ireland Funds dinner in Washington DC on Wednesday to a room full of powerful US politicos was lacking in forceful delivery and received a lukewarm reception.

He denied he was softening his language, instead stating he had to tailor the message to the audience, while also mentioning that there are indeed mixed views on the conflict in Gaza in the US.

Palestine, Gaza, Israel and the Middle East were all mentioned by the Taoiseach today. He called for an immediate ceasefire, for hostages to be released and for urgent aid to be provided. 

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Biden tells Varadkar US will continue to supply arms

But following the meeting in the Oval Office between Varadkar and Biden it became clear that the platitudes for peace might have been falling on deaf ears. 

Varadkar told reporters outside the White House after the Oval Office meeting:

The president was very clear that the US would continue to support Israel and to assist Israel to defend itself, so I don’t think that is going to change.

“I think none of us like to see American weapons being used in the way they are,” he said. 

Varadkar clarified that the US president himself raised the issue of US military support for Israel.

The Taoiseach told the media that there is a difference between self defence and what is happening now in Gaza, though he was not clear as to whether he made this point to Biden. 

president-joe-biden-left-and-irelands-prime-minister-leo-varadkar-right-attend-a-friends-of-ireland-luncheon-on-capitol-hill-friday-march-15-2024-in-washington-ap-photoandrew-harnik Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Ireland’s success story 

There is one card that Ireland can play though. Its own success story. And, in fairness, Varadkar played that card hard today. The Taoiseach tailored the message, as he would put it.

While Varadkar has been the focus on much of this trip, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly have been doing the rounds in Washington DC, promoting the good news that Northern Ireland is back in business. 

There is nothing US politicians like doing more when the Irish are in town, but to speak about the role America played in bringing peace to our island. 

Varadkar knows this well and it was a theme running through today, but with a  undercurrent to it.

There was a clear, but subtle, comparison being made between the role the US played in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and the role it could play today in ending the violence in Palestine and using its influence with Israel.

The US ‘helped us to find peace’

Speaking at the Vice President Kamala Harris’ house this morning, the Taoiseach said in his address that “there is a terrible humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza — a very human tragedy, which I think will haunt us all for years to come”.

“In Ireland, we know how quickly atrocities can lead to calls for vengeance, creating new cycles of hatred and bitterness. But we also know that the cycle can be broken, and that new hope can replace old hatreds,” Varadkar said, adding:

The United States helped us to find peace. And now let us work together to build a just and lasting peace in the Middle East for Israel, Palestine, and its Arab neighbors. 

“We know from our own story that finding peace can be a long and painful process, and it takes time to build trust and build relationships. 

“American politicians on both sides of the aisle helped to encourage and nurture these relationships in Northern Ireland over many decades. And we thank you all so much for that,” he said. 

The Taoiseach said that Northern Ireland looks very different now, with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister “from different traditions working together for greater good”. 

A clear nod to the fact that those living side-by-side, who seem a world apart from each other, can work and live together. 

In the House Speaker’s Luncheon, Varadkar continued along this path, appealing to the ego of US politicians that they too could play a role in another peace success story, if they had the will to do it.

Varadkar, noting what can be achieved, said it was “hugely significant” to have O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, “women from different political traditions, who are showing what can be achieved working together”, holding jointly a co-equal office as heads of government in Northern Ireland.

irelands-prime-minister-leo-varadkar-from-left-president-joe-biden-and-house-speaker-mike-johnson-r-la-depart-after-attending-a-friends-of-ireland-luncheon-on-capitol-hill-friday-march-15-202 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, US President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson on the steps of Capitol Hill. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

While the House Speaker Mike Johnson mentioned Israel being an ally to the US in his short speech before the lunch, Varadkar told the room that “catastrophe” was unfolding in the Middle East.

Varadkar said it is “very much” something Ireland wants to end.

“These are global challenges that demand our courage, our empathy and our action. And we pray for the wisdom of St. Patrick in facing them,” he said.

The US president said today that the annual St Patrick’s Day is a tradition he has always enjoyed.

“No matter how much we debate, no matter how much we disagree, we have always been able to come together as friends of Ireland,” he said.

“I’m deeply grateful for Ireland’s unwavering humanitarian aid to the people of not only Ukraine, but also Gaza,” Biden said.

“I’m committed to continue to do our part,” he said, stating that he wants the US to approve funding for “Ukraine and Israel and maybe equally important, humanitarian assistance to Gaza. They badly, badly need it”.

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Biden said such a move “sends a clear message America stands up for freedom and we bow down to no one, to no one in the world”. Perhaps a nod to Putin or even Netanyahu, who knows?

In his speech at the event, President Biden also paid tribute to politicians who restored the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

The lunch was attended by Northern Irish leaders, O’Neill, Little Pengelly, as well as Edwin Poots and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald.

In a touching moment, President Biden asked both the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to stand as US politicians applauded their cooperation in power. 

president-joe-biden-attends-a-friends-of-ireland-luncheon-with-irelands-prime-minister-leo-varadkar-not-pictured-on-capitol-hill-friday-march-15-2024-in-washington-ap-photoandrew-harnik US President Joe Biden shakes Deputy First Minister to Northern Ireland Emma Little-Pengelly's hand. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“Who’d have thunk it,” Biden said paying tribute to those that worked diplomacy to get the institutions up and running again.

“Thank you for reminding [us] of what possibilities there are as we work across the aisle and rise above long standing disagreements,” Biden said to the two Northern Ireland leaders. 

“Let me close on this. I think we stand an inflection point, not only in American history, but in world history. Where the decisions we make now are going to determine what the next three, four, five, six decades are gonna look like. And I believe history is watching,” said the US President. 

He is correct. The world is watching. Watching on at the slow-pace of action and diplomacy. Ireland was watching too today, to see if their Taoiseach could deliver their message to the world’s most powerful leader that more had to be done.

Varadkar did mention Palestine in almost every speech so far on his trip to the US, but whether his language or delivery has been strong enough, his critics will decide. 

Biden made clear today that with one hand, more aid was needed and would be provided to Gaza, but also that with the other hand, the US would continue to provide arms to Israel.

The Taoiseach knows Ireland can’t change that. But with the use of its ‘soft power’ the aim today appeared to be to remind the US of what it is capable of.

That it once helped bring peace to our island, and it could do so again for another people, if it wanted to. 

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