Taoiseach tiptoes through minefield without saying anything controversial

Varadkar and partner having breakfast with Pence before talking Brexit with Trump

Congressman Richard Neal and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the American Ireland Gala Fund dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Congressman Richard Neal and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the American Ireland Gala Fund dinner at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire


A year after some unguarded comments landed him in a Doonbeg bunker, Leo Varadkar made a more assured start to his latest St Patrick’s Week visit to Washington.

He had been teed up this time by the chaos engulfing his British counterpart, alongside which almost anything he said abroad would sound statesmanlike. With a wide fairway in front of him, and the wind (not to mention the wind farm incident) behind, he landed all his opening shots safely on the green.

Green is the only colour to be seen around here this week, and in keeping with tradition, the Taoiseach wrapped himself in a flag of that colour on the opening day of his visit, while repeatedly portraying an Ireland at peace with itself and “certain of its place in the world”, unlike the troubled neighbour.

There were echoes of another taoiseach with an unusual surname, during another St Patrick’s week, 80 years ago.

Except that instead of a country of “cosy homesteads”, Mr Varadkar now spoke of the EU in almost those terms. Whatever others chose, he said more than once, Ireland would remain happily ensconced “at the heart of a common European home we helped to build”. De Valera would have been proud.

Among the events his latest successor attended was one hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce earlier in the day, where he sat on a stage underneath the interesting slogan “Ireland - Gateway to the Atlantic”.

The word “gate” has a troubled history in Washington, especially when used in connection with water of any kind. But the slogan had a history that long predated Richard Nixon, having been first used as pro-Irish propaganda in 1919, to argue that Ireland’s harbours should be open to the world - an argument with uncanny similarities to Brexit - and not monopolised by Britain.

Anyway, the Taoiseach tiptoed through the minefield without saying anything more controversial than if Britain should change its mind about leaving, the EU would welcome it back like “the prodigal son” .

He managed to be similarly smooth at the Ireland Funds gala dinner, where speaking on the theme of “celebrating women”, he presented his Government as God’s gift to feminism. The only strained moment in the speech involved a joke that began with the question “How many men does it take to change a lightbulb?” and ended with the answer “not as many as it takes to break through a glass ceiling”.

A few guests looked at each other in puzzlement at that point, trying to work out the logic. But they were still struggling with it by the time he developed the glazing theme further, via the suffragettes’ window-smashing campaign. After that, there was nothing listeners could do except raise our own glasses in Hannah Sheehy Skeffington’s honour and let it go.

Among the many women there to hear his speech were Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald. Even the former was wrapped in green for the night, thanks to a sort of tartan sash, which appeared to emphasise the Ulster-Scots end of the verdancy spectrum. In any case, she was seen to drop by the Taoiseach’s table for a chat after dinner. They had plenty to talk about.

A worrying omen in these Brexit-haunted times is that, for the first time in almost half a century, Washington will have no St Patrick’s Day Parade. The local event was never as big as the ones in New York, Boston or Chicago. Even so, it had survived for 48 years up to last March, before being cancelled this year because of the increased cost of insurance for such events in the wake of the Nice and other terrorist attacks.

On the plus side, there is no threat yet of the red carpet for Ireland being rolled up here yet. As Congressman Richard Neal told the Ireland Funds Dinner audience, a “tiny country” of six million people, north and south, “will command a prominence unmatched in this city” over the few days festivities.

While presenting the shamrock today, Mr Varadkar’s may nevertheless have to try and talk President Trump out of any sympathy he still has with the hard Brexiteers.

But before discussing hard Brexit, he also has a soft breakfast to attend, courtesy of vice-President Mike Pence. That may be interesting too, given Pence’s strained relations with America’s LGBT population. In any case, the Taoiseach will be attend it in the company of his partner Matt Barrett, something the vice-president said last year he would welcome.