This St. Patrick's Day, Biden faces an Irish backlash over the Gaza war

This St. Patrick’s Day will see all of the customary White House traditions: Green ties will be worn, grip-and-grin photo opportunities between diplomats will be had, and a bowl of shamrocks will be presented to President Biden by Ireland’s leader, Leo Varadkar, as he visits the White House before a traditional lunch with congressional leaders Friday. 

But amid the pomp and pageantry to mark St. Patrick’s Day, which is on Sunday, the diplomatic discussions at this year’s festivities may have a certain edge to them, as public fury rises in Ireland over President Biden’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war. There will be pressure on the Irish delegation from their constituents and elected officials back at home to call out what they see as American complicity in the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, or Taoiseach, as he’s called in the Irish language, has spent the week in the U.S. and, while he’s been quick to compliment Mr. Biden ahead of the two men’s first bilateral meeting on Friday, Varadkar has also been assertive in pushing Ireland’s position when it comes to the war in Gaza.

“The situation in Gaza is catastrophic and of great concern, and I have to say I believe President Biden’s heart is in the right place here,” Varadkar said, speaking to reporters at a dinner in Washington on Wednesday. “I know he’s working with Egypt, with Qatar, Saudi and other countries in the region like the Jordanians to try and get Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire.”

“But I also want to put across the very strong view of the Irish people that there should be an immediate cease-fire,” the Irish leader added.

Earlier in the week, Varadkar said in Boston that “when thousands of children are being killed, no one can avert their eyes.”

US President Joe Biden Ireland Visit
President Biden meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on April 13, 2023 in Dublin, Ireland.

Niall Carson/Getty

His remarks, while hardly a condemnation of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, may sting an American president who considers himself the most Irish of recent U.S. leaders. It was less than a year ago that Mr. Biden — who’s known to regularly cite the poetry of Seamus Heaney and make reference to his Irish ancestors arriving in America on “coffin” ships — visited the country, to great diplomatic success.

The president was greeted with adulation by elected Irish officials and members of the public as thousands of people turned up to watch him address a large crowd in his great-great-great grandfather’s hometown of Ballina in County Mayo last April.

Much of that enthusiasm appears to have evaporated on Irish soil as the war in Gaza rages.

“It’s amazing how much things can change in a year,” said Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, a center-left Irish lawmaker who warmly welcomed Mr. Biden to Dublin last year, when the U.S. leader addressed both chambers of Ireland’s parliament

“That visit would be impossible today,” said Ó Ríordáin. “If that happened today, there would be nobody in the chamber.”

Ó Ríordáin said while the average Irish person would have warmly welcomed Mr. Biden a year ago, owing largely to his heritage, he would receive no such homecoming this year, after more than five months of imagery showing mass destruction in the embattled Palestinian enclave.

“What we see from the Irish vantage point is the elimination of 30,000 lives, disproportionately women and children,” he told CBS News. “What we see is a very well equipped, well armed, powerful nation exact revenge on a very beleaguered people.”

Ireland has long been considered one of the biggest proponents of the Palestinian people’s call for an end to Israeli occupation and statehood — partly due to what the Irish public see as parallels in the two peoples’ histories. The history of British occupation still leaves an indelible mark on the collective Irish psyche.

“I think that’s very clear from Irish history. I think that’s part of it,” said Ó Ríordáin. “We have muscle memory of instances such as Bloody Sunday or British atrocities in Ireland… there is a clear delineation between the acts of a terrorist organization and the retribution of a state.”

Fatin Al Tamimi, an Irish-Palestinian national who emigrated to the Emerald Isle in 1988, told CBS News that public outrage over the conflict has led to thousands of Irish people showing up at weekly demonstrations she’s helped to organize across the country. The protesters, including some 100,000 people who took to the streets for one demonstration in Dublin last month, are also demanding an immediate cease-fire.

“The Irish are human,” Al Tamimi told CBS News. “They feel with others and they refuse oppression.”

Al Tamimi said that, like many in the Irish public, she didn’t believe Varadkar and his delegation should even have visited the White House for St. Patrick’s Day this year.

Members of political parties from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland traditionally visit the White House for St. Patrick’s Day, but this year, the leader of one of Northern Ireland’s smaller Irish nationalist parties decided to boycott the event.

“I’m not going to the White House, which is basically a kind of party and not much more,” said Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. “I just think it would be kind of gross to be drinking pints of Guinness and eating canapes when Biden is facilitating what’s happening in Gaza.” 

“All we’ve really seen from the White House has been briefings that he [Biden] is a bit annoyed with Netanyahu. It’s a bit pathetic, really, when America is providing Israel with weapons and when bombs are being dropped on children.”

The disconnect between Irish political leadership and the White House can be seen in clear terms when it comes to funding of UNRWA, the United Nations humanitarian agency for Palestinians — a controversial agency that is nonetheless considered a vital lifeline for desperate civilians in Gaza.

Israel alleged in January that at least a dozen UNRWA staff members took part in Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 terror attack, prompting the U.S. and a number of other Western nations to suspend further funding for the agency pending a full investigation.

Ireland has not only continued funding UNRWA, it committed about $22 million in new funding for the agency in February, citing the “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.

Ireland’s President Michael Higgins, whose role is largely ceremonial, roundly condemned the pause in funding by other countries this week, calling it, “a propaganda campaign against the United Nations” and a “scandalous travesty.”

“Those countries, and they include some of the strongest economies in the world, who have removed over $450m from the UNRWA budget must take account of what is now being shown on the television screens of the world for all to see — infant children dying from lack of oxygen,” Higgins said in a statement.

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