Washington parades Ireland centre stage as politicians play green card for St Patrick’s festivities

Varadkar, Martin and McDonald among those visiting Joe Biden and other key US players in traditional leveraging of our national identity

Last Monday morning Americans were a little more anxious about the opening of the stock market than usual, given that two banks had shut down over the previous three days.

Fears of contagion were in the air, with concerns that the uncertainty could hit stock prices and even lead to a run on some financial institutions. When politicians are insisting that the banks are okay, people get nervous.

TV networks switched to the opening bell on Wall Street during their breakfast shows. Standing on the famous balcony above the bell was Minister for Education Norma Foley along with Irish-American congressman Ritchie Neal and the new US economic envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy among others.

The “Ireland Inc” image flashed onto TV screens across the country. The media narrative may have been about the stability of banks, but the backdrop was Ireland.


Exactly how reassuring Americans found the Minister for Education is not recorded. But it was a sign that the Irish invasion was well under way. It’s St Patrick’s week again in the United States.

It is over 70 years now since the then Irish ambassador to Washington John Hearne dropped off at the White House a box of shamrock as a gift for the then president Harry Truman, who was not present at the time.

From that humble beginning spawned a week-long extravaganza which not only national politicians but also local authority leaders – there were several chains of office bounding around various events – as well as State agencies, business groups, universities and trade unions leveraged to get their message across. Politicians now no longer refer to St Patrick’s Day – instead it’s St Patrick’s Week or even “St Patrick’s Season”.

Globally, the week has seen 850 official events organised by Irish embassies and consulates in 77 cities across 44 different countries. Business and other groups now piggyback on the official programme. Employers’ group Ibec held a dinner for about 120 people on the Wharf in Washington on Tuesday, while a delegation from Fórsa, Ireland’s largest public service union, was also in town for meetings both with politicians on Capitol Hill as well as with key figures in the US labour movement and industrial relations.

There was even a meeting of whiskey manufacturers in the White House. The Irish Whiskey Association, as well as representatives of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States held talks with senior staff of the Biden administration. Slainte!

Junkets for politicians and their hangers on, say the cynics. Priceless opportunity to advance Ireland’s interests, say the enthusiasts. Of course, they could both be right. But one thing is irrefutable: no other country gets this sort of slot in the congested US political and business calendar. You know it’s worth doing when you see how jealous the British get, laughs one official. There might be something in that.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The British were also very active in Washington this week, and it was noticeable that the Windsor Framework has taken the edge out of the competition for influence that had been very evident amid the tensions that followed Brexit.

UK ambassador Karen Pierce held a breakfast reception on St Patrick’s Day just down the road from where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was meeting Kamala Harris. Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton Harris was also in town for several days and attended the Ireland Fund dinner, while the leaders of all the main parties in Northern Ireland, including DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionists, were in Washington for the first time in a number of years.

Several hundred people also attended the breakfast event held by the Northern Ireland Bureau on Thursday including Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin. On Thursday night, the University of Ulster awarded an honorary doctorate to former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Peace and prosperity

The Taoiseach didn’t arrive in Washington until Tuesday, but Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin was already hard at it on Monday in New York. Fresh off the flight into JFK, he schlepped the few blocks from Fitzpatrick’s Hotel (everyone stays there or at its little brother near Grand Central station, where guests this week included Foley and Enda Kenny) to the headquarters of Mutual of America, the giant pensions and investment firm, on Park Avenue where he was the main speaker at an event to honour Hillary Clinton. Americans just love honouring one another.

Clinton was an ally of the Irish peace process when she was a senator and secretary of state, but it was when she was first lady in her husband’s White House that the decisive breakthroughs were made: the Hume-Adams initiative, the Downing Street declaration, the IRA ceasefires and eventually the Belfast Agreement itself. The head of Mutual at the time was Bill Flynn, who devoted much of his time to helping the fledgling peace process; he was instrumental in persuading Bill Clinton to ignore the advice of his own state department and allow Gerry Adams into the country – a decision that was important in persuading republicans that maybe politics could achieve what violence couldn’t. It was a pivotal moment and remembered as such on Monday evening.

The evening was a snapshot of how Irish politicians have leveraged the money and power of Irish America into peace and prosperity at home.

Eyebrows raised

Martin was in New York for the week – he marched in the parade on Friday – before heading to Boston. He missed out on the Oval Office meeting with Joe Biden last year, testing positive for Covid-19 the evening before. He had to be whisked away from the social highlight of the week, the annual Ireland Funds gala dinner, past a table of excited Irish journalists who shortly afterwards had to call their editors and actually say “Hold the front page!” There were no such hiccups for Varadkar at the dinner this year, though there was many an eyebrow raised at the speech by Senator Chuck Schumer who proposed, inter alia, sending the Irish rugby team to Ukraine, which he felt would settle the conflict within a week. Receiving a “distinguished leadership award” (more honouring) in the form of a plaque with an inscribed Heaney poem, Schumer thanked “Seamus Heaney and the Ireland Funds”. He also speculated this could be the year when Mayo finally wins the All-Ireland. It was that kind of speech.

There was much speculation about what Donaldson, would make of the speech. Not a lot, apparently. The DUP leader was put under pressure all week to accept the Windsor declaration and agree to revive the power-sharing institutions, but he was not – yet anyway – for turning; he gave a combative speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday, insisting that further changes to the Northern Ireland protocol are necessary to secure unionist consent.

Both politicians and US businesspeople have been waving the carrot of investment in the North at Donaldson all week if he will accept the protocol, but he gave no clue as to his ultimate intentions. Some senior Irish officials were worried at the unyielding tone of his remarks this week, though others speculated that he was just giving himself the space to be in Washington. Certainly, everyone was falling over themselves to say what an extraordinary deal the protocol gives the North, enabling it to have a foot in both the EU and UK markets. It’s hard to argue with that.

Sinn Féin’s McDonald and O’Neill applauded Schumer warmly, unworried by the ticking off they got from Donaldson and Varadkar earlier about advertisements they had taken out in major US newspapers calling for a border poll. “Unhelpful” was Varadkar’s verdict; “incredible”, said Sir Jeffrey. McDonald’s New York and Washington programme – briefing politicians, speechifying, meeting business leaders – wouldn’t look out of place for a taoiseach. That’s hardly an accident. Will she return as taoiseach one day with O’Neill beside her as first minister? She’ll know her way around anyway.

Irish officials were happier with the speech by Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy, the Republican congressman who replaced Nancy Pelosi in the powerful position following November’s mid-term elections. Pelosi had been an important Irish ally; McCarthy sounded like he’d be just as staunch. Varadkar told The Irish Times he would be inviting McCarthy to visit Ireland.

Gratitude expressed

Varadkar’s visit had three objectives: meeting businesses and talking about the economy; speaking with representatives of the Irish diaspora; and holding talks with key political figures in the US.

While he wanted to thank Biden for his role in supporting Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit and for his continued backing of the Belfast Agreement, he also wanted to raise concerns with the White House over provisions in the new US climate and inflation reduction legislation which could provide advantages to American manufacturers. Varadkar said he did not want a subsidies race to develop between Europe and the US.

Preparation by diplomats seeks to make use of every minute of the Taoiseach’s time. For example, Varadkar also met with senior staff working for various politicians on Capitol Hill in an event organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish American publication Irishcentral.com. These staffers in many ways control access to politicians and the aim of the exercise was to introduce to the Taoiseach many who would not normally get to see a senior Irish political leader in Washington.

Though Varadkar insists on scheduling downtime, the daily programmes are chockablock, with several official events each day. The chances of mistakes and accidents rise with the number of events. On Thursday, Varadkar apologised after making a joke about having interned in Washington during the Clinton presidency. This was a few hours after he attended an event with . . . Hillary Clinton. He will be meeting both Clintons next month at the Belfast Agreement events. That could be awkward. Officials were left speechless at the gaffe.

Northern Ireland was a constant focus all week, with Joe Biden finally confirming the world’s worst-kept secret when the White House announced he would travel to Ireland, North and South, in April as part of the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. “We’ll roll out the red carpet for him,” Varadkar promised. But the prospects of the political institutions founded by the agreement being up and running by then are still uncertain. For all the bonhomie and backslapping of the week, there was no getting away from that.