Gaza casts pall over Irish PM's St Patrick's Day talks with Biden

Gaza casts pall over Irish PM's St Patrick's Day talks with Biden
US President Joe Biden and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar pledged to work to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza war.
4 min read
.S. President Joe Biden and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speak to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House on March 15 [Getty]

The Irish premier's annual Saint Patrick's Day visit to the White House is normally a joyful affair -- but this year the war in Gaza cast a shadow darker than a rainy Dublin sky.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and President Joe Biden -- who loves to celebrate his Irish ancestry -- found themselves having to paper over a deep split over Israel's handling of the conflict.

Varadkar has been one of Europe's most critical leaders over the situation in Gaza, calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. Biden meanwhile continues to send key US ally Israel weapons, while pushing for a six-week truce.

Their differences were on stark display on Friday.

"The president was very clear that the US would continue to support Israel and to assist Israel to defend itself, so I don't think that's going to change," Varadkar said after their Oval Office meeting.

"But I think none of us like to see American weapons being used in the way they are. The way they're being used at the moment is not self-defense."

To be sure, the Taoiseach's traditional White House trip ahead of the Irish national holiday this weekend had all the outward trappings of friendship and amity.

Biden sported an emerald green tie decorated with shamrock leaves. The mantelpiece of the Oval Office fireplace was also decked with bunches of the plant, Ireland's national symbol.

Rarely missing the chance to trumpet his heritage, Biden quoted an Irish saying to open the meeting.

"May the hinge of our friendship never go rusty," he said, adding: "I don't think we are going to let it go rusty."

Last year Biden paid an emotive visit to Ireland, a country that still plays an outsized role in US politics with some 10 percent of Americans claiming ancestral roots there.

Ceasefire 'yesterday' 

Varadkar had faced calls in Ireland to boycott the Biden meeting, with support running high for the Palestinians in a country with its own bitter memories of fighting for independence a century ago, in its case from British rule.

But in the Oval Office, Biden and Varadkar were keen to present as united a front as possible.

"You know my view is that we need a ceasefire as soon as possible to get food and medicine in, to get the hostages out," Varadkar said.

Biden quickly nodded his head and said "I agree."

Both of them stressed the need for urgent humanitarian aid for Gaza, where the UN has warned of famine.

The US president signaled his own frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the war, praising a "good speech" by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that called for Israel to hold fresh elections.

The two leaders also underscored the areas where they see eye-to-eye -- on supporting Ukraine against Russia's invasion; on stability in British-ruled Northern Ireland after the tribulations of Brexit; and on US-Irish economic ties.

But speaking to reporters outside the West Wing after the meeting, Varadkar was candid about their divisions on Gaza, calling for a ceasefire "yesterday."

"All that I want, Ireland wants, is that this should happen immediately, because the humanitarian situation in Gaza really is catastrophic," he said.

Notably he praised Vice President Kamala Harris -- whom he met for breakfast -- for her "great courage and leadership" in calling for an immediate ceasefire earlier this month. It marked an upping in rhetoric from the Biden administration, and Biden himself did not use the phrase until days afterward.

Biden and Varadkar later tried to stop the issue from hanging over a "Friends of Ireland Luncheon" in Congress -- hosted by Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, who described Biden as "America's most famous Irishman."

"There's nothing, nothing our nations can't do together if we work together," said Biden. "And I mean that from the bottom of my heart."

The president will host Varadkar again at the White House on Sunday, on the day of Saint Patrick's Day, for further celebrations.