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Irish Anger Over Gaza Overshadows White House St. Patrick Celebration


U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, March 15, 2024.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in the Oval Office of the White House, March 15, 2024.

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Friday for the annual St. Patrick's Day reception at the White House, amid calls to boycott the event by many in Ireland who are outraged by staunch U.S. support of Israel in its war against Hamas.

“Today celebrates 100 years, 100 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and America,” Biden said in front of reporters at the top of his meeting with Varadkar. “May the hinge of our friendship never go rusty,” he added, quoting an Irish saying.

Varadkar noted the “strong relationship” between Ireland and the U.S. and said he is “keen” to discuss the situation in Gaza.

“My view is that we need a cease-fire as soon as possible to get food and medicine in, to get the hostages out,” he said. “We need to talk about how we can make that happen and move towards a two-state solution which I think is the only way we'll have lasting peace and security.”

“I agree,” Biden said.

Varadkar has repeatedly called for an “immediate cease-fire,” a step that goes beyond the six-week halt in fighting that Biden is pushing for.

Speaking earlier this week in Boston, where almost a quarter of the city’s population claims Irish descent, the Irish prime minister cited Ireland’s “own painful history,” and said he intends to warn Biden and congressional leaders that if the West does not “see and respect the equal value of a child of Israel and a child of Palestine,” the rest of the world, particularly the Global South, will ignore calls to uphold “rules and institutions that are the bedrock of the civilized world.”

Polls show Ireland, a Catholic-majority European country, is one of the most pro-Palestinian nations in the world. Many Irish cite their own resistance against British rule as the reason for their support of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.

Varadkar’s visit comes amid shifting public sentiment among Biden’s Democratic Party on the war in Gaza. On Thursday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S. and an avid supporter of Israel, stunned Israelis by condemning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an “obstacle to peace” and calling for new elections in Israel.

Biden told reporters that Schumer contacted senior White House officials before addressing the Senate on Israel.

“He made a good speech, and I think he expressed serious concern shared not only by him, but by many Americans,” Biden said.

Biden and Varadkar discussed support for Ukraine’s push against Russian aggression amid a deadlock in the U.S. Congress over funding for Kyiv. The Irish leader added his voice to the chorus of European leaders urging House Republicans to pass the aid package.

Varadkar underscored that he’s “very worried” about the progress of the war.

“We don't think that if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is successful in Ukraine, he'll stop there,” he said.

The leaders attended a "Friends of Ireland" luncheon with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Biden implored the House of Representatives to pass the Senate-approved $95.3 billion aid package, which includes $60 billion for Ukraine, $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel, $9.2 billion in humanitarian assistance and $4.8 billion to support regional partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

"I continue to urge every member in this room to stand up to Vladimir Putin," Biden said in his luncheon address. "He's a thug."

Northern Ireland

First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly of the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP are also in Washington to take part in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The two aim to deliver the message that Northern Ireland is open for business following the recently restored power-sharing deal in Stormont or the Northern Ireland Assembly, after two years of political infighting between DUP, which favors continued governance with London, and Sinn Féin, which broadly supports reunification with Ireland.

Biden, who often cites his Irish heritage, has long advocated for the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal that helped end 30 years of bloody conflict over whether Northern Ireland should unify with Ireland or remain part of the United Kingdom.

“I'm glad to see Northern Ireland’s Executive Assembly is up and running,” Biden said, calling it a “very positive step forward.

In his visit to Northern Ireland last year, the president promised that American businesses are ready to invest once power-sharing and stability is returned.