Taoiseach’s St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington still up in the air

White House plays down idea of in-person meeting with US president Joe Biden

US president Joe Biden at the Oval Office on Thursday. If Micheál  Martin does travel to Washington on March 17th, he would be one of the first foreign leaders to meet Mr Biden. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times/Bloomberg

US president Joe Biden at the Oval Office on Thursday. If Micheál Martin does travel to Washington on March 17th, he would be one of the first foreign leaders to meet Mr Biden. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times/Bloomberg

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The White House on Thursday night played down the possibility of an in-person meeting between US president Joe Biden and the Taoiseach to mark St Patrick’s Day, while not ruling it out.

Officials on both sides of the Atlantic continue to explore the possibility of virtual events amid continuing uncertainty over whether or not Micheál Martin will travel to Washington.

The Irish Government hasn’t ruled out the prospect of Mr Martin meeting Mr Biden in person.

Mr Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday: “We certainly have limited public events. There have not been public events here.”

She added: “I’m happy to check with our team on that if there is any change as it relates to a traditional event that happens in March.”

Officials in the Biden administration have privately emphasised that discussions on a possible visit to Washington by the Taoiseach are still at the exploratory stage, and that a final decision may still be some time away.

Asked if the annual Speaker’s Lunch in Capitol Hill will go ahead, a spokesperson for House speaker Nancy Pelosi told The Irish Times: “Nothing has been finalised at this time.”

Video link

However, The Irish Times understands that both Irish and US administration officials are still looking at the possibility that the traditional St Patrick’s Day engagements will have to take place via video link due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The public health situation in both countries is being assessed to determine how the long-standing annual event can be marked in a “significant way” if Mr Martin does not travel.

Sources said that even if he does go, some elements of the trip – which usually includes numerous political and business engagements – may be held via video link.

If the in-person meeting does go ahead, the US authorities require Mr Martin to have a Covid-19 vaccine, and he will have to get it imminently so both doses can be administered and take effect before mid-March.

There are mixed views among the Opposition on whether or not Mr Martin should go to Washington, with some highly critical of any trip taking place.

The Taoiseach told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland on Thursday that if he is invited to the White House he will go and that he expected that he would have to be vaccinated. He said the relationship between Ireland and the US would be marked in “some shape or form”.

Later he told CNN that “both administrations are in touch to see what’s the best way... to mark St Patrick’s Day this year.”

Open invitation

He said: “I know president Biden, his first priority is to deal with Covid-19 and he’s hit the ground running in that respect; likewise here in Ireland in dealing with Covid.”

Mr Martin added: “we will make a decision later” and said there’s an open invitation for Mr Biden to come to Ireland.

If Mr Martin does travel he would be one of the first foreign leaders to meet Mr Biden. A meeting with the Canadian prime minister is generally the first port of call for newly elected US presidents.

Whether an expected meeting this month between Mr Biden and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is virtual or in person will probably determine what form the Taoiseach’s meeting with the new US president takes.

Labour leader Alan Kelly said he believes Mr Martin should travel due to the importance of the meeting to Ireland but said a decision should be made closer to the time.

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said this week that in the midst of a global pandemic when people’s movements are restricted to within 5km of their home, he should “show some leadership” and not travel to Washington.

The Social Democrats, People Before Profit and Aontú have all said the trip should not go ahead.