Harris engagement on Ireland a pleasant surprise at St Patrick’s Day meetings
Events suggest an interest on the part of the first female vice-president in Northern Ireland affairs
The St Patrick’s Day celebrations may have been muted in Washington due to the pandemic, but a little touch of Ireland was still visible at the White House.
As daylight broke over the city, the bright green spray of the White House fountains gave a welcome splash of colour to the overcast day.
Shortly after 10am,US president Joe Biden landed on the South Lawn of the White House on the Marine One helicopter, having spent the evening in Delaware. He had attended 8am Mass earlier, and was back at base ahead of his meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Inside the building, most of the small pool of journalists wore a smattering of green and shamrocks on their lapels, courtesy of the Irish Embassy.
Similarly, US vice-president Kamala Harris and her officials were decked out in emerald at the Executive Office Building, adjacent to the West Wing, for a series of engagements with the Taoiseach.
Typically, the vice-president opens the day’s celebrations with a breakfast for the Taoiseach in the official residence at the Naval Observatory. This year, the breakfast was not on the agenda – not only because of the pandemic, but because Harris and her husband have not yet moved into the residence, which is still under renovation following the departure of Mike Pence.
While Biden’s Irish links are well known, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the level of engagement by Harris. The vice-president had three separate engagements yesterday – a bilateral meeting with Martin, an event to honour the recipients of the Frederick Douglass fellowship, and an afternoon virtual meeting with the two Northern Ireland leaders, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill.
The meeting between the three female politicians, organised in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington, had been kept under wraps until the eve of the meeting.
Though their discussion was private, the meeting suggests an interest on the part of the first female vice-president in Northern Ireland affairs, perhaps as she strives to hone her foreign policy credentials.
In keeping with tradition, the annual Speakers’ Lunch, hosted by Nancy Pelosi, went ahead with the bipartisan Friends of Ireland group on Capitol Hill. The president – who usually attends the meeting in person – delivered a pre-recorded address, including the prerequisite Seamus Heaney quote.
But the centrepiece of yesterday’s event was the bilateral meeting between the Taoiseach and the US president.
For the first time since his inauguration, Biden’s virtual meeting with a foreign leader took place in the Oval Office, rather than in one of the larger rooms in the White House.
A small group of officials, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, National Security Council Europe director Amanda Sloat, and counsellor to the president Steve Ricchetti, were seated near the president on the gold-coloured couches, while US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, attended virtually – an indication of the importance placed by the US on Ireland’s position on the UN Security Council.
An engraved Criostal na Rinne bowl*, holding shamrocks grown in Co Kerry, was positioned between the president and the Taoiseach, who appeared virtually on screen – replicating the traditional configuration of the meeting, which usually sees the two leaders sit in front of the fireplace across from the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.
As he welcomed the Taoiseach, in front of a small group of (Covid-tested) journalists, Biden spoke warmly of his memories of visiting Ireland and the importance of his Irish heritage.
He recalled how his grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, used to tell him: “Joey, remember, the best drop of blood in you is Irish.”
US support for the Belfast Agreement remains “strong”, he said, assuring Ireland of the US’s continuing interest in the Northern Ireland peace process.
As journalists were ushered out of the room, the two men continued their discussions in private, including touching on the sensitive issue of vaccine provision.
As the sun set on the US capital last night, the walls and grounds of the White House were bathed in green. For a city that remains under tight security and heavy fencing, it was a rare symbol of hope and tradition, and a reminder of the continuing power of Irish-America.
*This article was amended on March 18th, 2021.