Taoiseach travels to US despite coronavirus threat

Varadkar due to meet Trump and attend shamrock ceremony in the White House

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar travels to Washington on Wednesday, amid signs that the meeting iwith US president Donald Trump will go ahead as planned, despite the threat of coronavirus.

Mr Varadkar is due to meet the US president on Thursday morning and attend the annual shamrock ceremony in the East Room of the White House in the afternoon. The annual Speaker's Lunch on Capitol Hill is also due to take place, though Mr Trump is skipping the event due to ongoing tensions with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Taoiseach is also meeting vice president Mike Pence for breakfast at his residence in the US capital.

Mr Varadkar’s meeting with Mr Trump is expected to go ahead, despite revelations that Mr Trump travelled on Air Force One on Monday with a member of congress who is now in self-quarantine after interacting with an infected person at a conservative conference less than two weeks ago. At least four members of Congress are now self-quarantining after it emerged they had contact with the conference attendee. Both Mr Trump and vice president Mike Pence also attended the event which took place outside Washington.

But Mr Trump said on Tuesday that he had not been tested for the virus, stating that the White House physician said there was no need. “I don’t think it’s a big deal ... feel extremely good. I feel very good,” he said, after meeting with Republican congress members on Capitol Hill, though he indicated that he would be willing to be tested.


Renewed push

Mr Varadkar’s visit comes amid a renewed push to secure Senate approval for Irish inclusion in the E3 immigration bill as early as this week.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Monday to extend provisions for the visa programme - which currently only applies to Australian citizens - to Ireland.

The Bill, which was moved to the floor by senior Democratic congressman Richard Neal, proposes that Irish citizens become eligible for the unused portion of Australia’s annual allocation of approximately 10,000 visas. But it now must be approved unanimously by the Senate, which blocked the proposal in 2018.

The issue is likely to be raised by Mr Varadkar during his meeting with Mr Trump in the oval office on Thursday, which was still expected to go ahead despite the threat of the coronavirus.

US Special Envoy John Deasy, who remains in his position until a new government in Ireland is formed, and Senator Billy Lawless who represents the Irish diaspora in the Senate, have been centrally involved in the negotiations with members of Congress and the Irish embassy about the proposal.

Mr Deasy said that while he welcomed the passing of the bill in the House, securing senate support remains challenging.

“This has now passed the House unanimously on two occasions, but we’ve a fight on our hands in the Senate,” he said, noting the urgency of securing a breakthrough in the next few days or weeks.

The Senate could possibly fast-track the legislation, but the bill needs unanimous support.

Visa issue

Monday’s vote was an attempt to get the E3 visa issue back on the political agenda. The previous effort took place during the last Congress, so the process had to be effectively re-started. It is understood that Australia raised some concerns in the run-up to Monday’s vote, but ultimately it passed easily in the House, without a formal vote being taken. The path is much more difficult in the Senate where Tom Cotton, a senator from Arkansas, blocked its passage sixteen months ago, however.

Mr Varadkar’s first engagement in Washington will be a speech at tonight’s Ireland Funds dinner in Washington which will honour Ms Pelosi and retiring Republican congressman Peter King, the co-chairman of the Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill.

Speaking ahead of his visit Mr Varadkar said:

“The annual St Patrick’s Day events in Washington DC are a valuable opportunity for Ireland. I will use my meetings with president Trump and other senior US politicians to emphasise the strength and importance of Irish-US bilateral relations, particularly our economic ties. I intend to discuss issues including EU-UK relations, Northern Ireland and the US role in protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent