Taoiseach says St Patrick’s Day meeting with Biden was ‘warm and upbeat’

Covid-19 vaccine supply and Northern Ireland discussed during virtual bilateral meeting

US president Joe Biden spoke in glowing terms of his relationship with Ireland during the bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Video: RTÉ

 

US president Joe Biden underlined his “strong support” for the Belfast Agreement on Wednesday as he held his first bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Micheál Martin to mark St Patrick’s Day.

Speaking in the Oval Office ahead of the lengthy online meeting, which was described as “warm and upbeat” by the Taoiseach, Mr Biden said the “political and economic stability of Northern Ireland is very much in the interest of all our peoples”.

Mr Biden thanked Mr Martin for the tradition of the bowl of shamrock, which this year had been delivered to the White House in advance of the meeting.

“We have a great affection for the country and a great affection for the tradition,” he said, referencing his own visits to Ireland.

Yesterday’s engagements, which also included virtual meetings between the Taoiseach, US vice-president Kamala Harris and senior figures on Capitol Hill including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, took place against a background of heightened tension over Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland. Earlier this week, the EU launched legal proceedings against London for reneging on an element of the Brexit agreement.

Earlier in the day, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab had accused the EU of “trying to erect a barrier down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that is challenging the spirit of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday agreement”.

Robust

Responding to a question from congressman Brendan Boyle at the Aspen Institute event in Washington, Mr Raab said: “I hope that our friends on the Hill on all sides of the house, and both houses, are equally robust in picking up when the EU undermines the agreement.”

While senior congressional figures have warned London about breaching the terms of the Brexit agreement, the White House struck a more cautious note, privately and publicly, on Wednesday.

Speaking ahead of the US president’s virtual meeting with the Taoiseach, a senior administration White House official said the US would not “take sides” in the debate.

A joint statement issued by the White House and the Irish Government after the bilateral meeting said both leaders had called “for the good faith implementation of international agreements designed to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland” and “underscored the importance of preserving the hard-won gains of the peace process”.

Asked at a briefing if Mr Biden committed to visiting Ireland during his discussion, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “I know in his heart he’d really like to go,” but added: “I’m not aware of any specific timeline for travel.”

Mr Biden also joined a meeting between vice-president Kamala Harris, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, during which the DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers invited them to Northern Ireland when public health conditions allow.

Ms Foster described the engagement as “extremely valuable”.

Heartening

Speaking after the meeting, Amanda Sloat, Europe director on the National Security Council, said Ms Harris had “a very good conversation” with both women. “As a woman it was incredibly heartening to see three very strong and capable women on screen, coming from very different backgrounds,” she said. Mr Biden had also acknowledged the fact there were differing views within the two communities on the Northern Ireland protocol.

As the EU continues to press the US at the highest levels to share some of its AstraZeneca vaccine stockpiles with Europe, Mr Martin indicated that Mr Biden did not commit to providing vaccines to Europe. “President Biden’s main focus is getting his own people vaccinated,” he said.

Asked about the key question of vaccine supply, and if he asked Mr Biden if it were possible for US manufacturers to suppy Ireland, the Taoiseach said the US was facing the same logistical challenge as Europe in terms of accessing sufficient supply for its own population.