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St Patrick’s Day at the White House

Irish leaders tread carefully in the United States

24 March 2024

Presentation of the Shamrock at the White House..

The degree to which an historically oppressed national, ethnic or religious group has come to accept their oppression can be measured by the extent to which negative stereotypes are not just normalised but even celebrated.  In no nation is this more the case than Ireland and at no time is it more on display than around St Patrick’s Day.  Despite a long and rich intellectual and cultural history, it is the crude anti-Irish stereotypes of drunkenness, violence and stupidity which are presented as the nation’s most pronounced characteristics.

This “Irishness”, and the displays of pageantry that go along with it, bear a close resemblance to the minstrel show tradition that dominated popular culture in the late 19th and early 20th century.  There are direct parallels between blackface and Irishface and between racist caricatures such as Jim Crow and Zip Coon and their Irish equivalents.  Both these traditions have their origins in the US and it has been American dominance of popular culture, rather than something organic to Ireland as a nation, that has cemented certain ideas of Irishness in the public mind.  This was typified by the visit of US president Joe Biden to Ireland last year during which he namechecked every negative stereotype going; declaring that: “I may be Irish, but I'm not stupid”; expressing amazement that his distant relatives “actually weren't in jail”; and finally, that he was not really Irish as he didn’t drink alcohol.(1)

All of this may be written off as a joke but beneath it all is the reality of the subordinate relationship between Ireland and the United States.  The most high-profile display of this relationship is when Irish leaders travel to Washington DC every St Patrick’s to pay homage to the US president through the presentation of a bowl of Shamrock at a White House reception.   This ritual has been going on so long it isn’t even controversial.  However, in the midst of the US sponsored onslaught by Israel against the people of Gaza it was very different this year.  There was public pressure on Irish politicians to boycott the event or at the very least use the platform to raise the plight of the Palestinians.  It was argued that, because Biden traded off his Irish ancestry, a boycott of the St Patrick’s reception at the White House would have served as a powerful diplomatic rebuke of his Administration.   However, the call for a boycott was dismissed out of hand by nearly every political party that had received an invitation (with the exception of the SDLP).   The argument from the parties of government, and also Sinn Féin, was that the “unparalleled access”(2) enjoyed by Irish politicians in the US over the period of the St Patrick’s holiday would provide the most effective means to exert influence on the Biden Administration on the issue of Gaza.

Given the vastly unequal relationship between the US and Ireland such a claim was always very dubious.  As the string of St Patrick’s events in the US played out this was comprehensively proven to be the case.  Any mentions of what was being done to the people of Gaza were framed in the vaguest terms. It certainly wasn’t described as genocide or ethnic cleansing and there certainly wasn’t any mention of the complicity of the US.  Indeed, to listen to some politicians you would have thought that the US was some disinterested bystander.  None of this should have come as a surprise given what was said in advance of the meetings with Biden.  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared that: “I’m not here to tell him off or tick him off” asking people to “never forget that he’s been a very good friend to Ireland.”(3) Rather than challenge the US president Varadkar was praising Biden and shielding him from criticism, making the patronising claim that on the issue of Gaza his heart was in the “right place”.(4)  This theme was echoed by the leaders of Sinn Fein.  Mary Lou McDonald declared that she’d “talk to the devil himself”(5) to bring about a ceasefire, though obviously she wasn’t referring to Biden as a devil.  Michelle O’Neill said her party would raise the issue of Gaza and push for a ceasefire deploying the familiar Sinn Fein argument that the Irish peace process could be a model for Israel/Palestine.

“The U.S. has always been a very strong partner for peace and actually a critical player in achieving our own peace process and I would hope that the U.S. would use that same pragmatism the same approach they took to our peace process and take that to the Middle East,” she said.(6)
Of course, this neglects the fact that the US did sponsor a peace process in the Middle East, the Oslo Accords, that has led directly to the current catastrophe for the Palestinians.   The deceit here is that US imperialism can be a force for the good in one region of the world and a force for the bad in another.  The reality is that US imperialism is the same all over the world. The only question is how its interests can be best secured; both war and political settlements (such as the GFA) are routes to the same end.

A lot of the talk from Irish politicians about Gaza while they were in the US was actually designed to reassure people back in Ireland that they were actually raising the issue.  Whenever they addressed an American audience or met directly with officials, they were much more muted.  At the $1000 a plate Ireland Funds gala dinner, held at the National Building Museum in Washington DC, Gaza barely got a mention. In his address to the event Varadkar said that innocent civilians, who are not responsible for the crimes of Hamas, are “being subjected to humiliation and starvation”.  It speaks to the conservatism of the audience that even this anaemic rhetoric drew a frosty response.  In her address to the same event Michelle O’Neill didn’t even say the word “Gaza” or “Palestine”, and only said she hoped to form a “constructive critical partnership” with the US administration on “what’s happening in the Middle East”.(7)

Performative: Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill

When challenged about the contrast in what was being said Varadkar denied that he was softening his language on Gaza when addressing an American audience.

“Anytime you go anywhere in the world you have to get the tone right. And you have to tailor the message for the audience that’s hearing it.” he said (8)
But what is this other than an admission that you are adapting the message, and not just in tone but also in substance.  This was on display again in Varadkar’s first of two meetings with Biden at the White House at which he urged the US president to work towards an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" in Gaza.(9)  That Biden could say he was in agreement really shows the lack of substance in Varadkar’s remarks.  It was surely no slip that the words “humanitarian ceasefire" were used; a phrase which has come to mean not a ceasefire, as commonly understood, but a limited pause in the killing.  No wonder Biden could agree.  The extent of Irish influence on the US position can be gauged from comments made by Varadkar following that meeting when he revealed that Joe Biden had made it clear that the US would continue to support Israel.(10)

The strongest statement made by any of the Irish politicians who travelled to Washington DC was the address by Varadkar at the presenting the shamrock ceremony at the White House at which he called for a ceasefire and drew parallels between the historical experiences of the Irish and Palestinian people.(11)    Ironically, it was the most conservative politician who made the best statement on Gaza.  Of course, the meaning of “best” here is highly relative.  It is only the best when contrasted with others who said barely anything.    Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also had a meeting with Biden at this event but the read out of that makes no mention of Gaza.(12)  This is pretty standard for Sinn Féin.  Despite their claim of being engaged in “very frank conversations”(13) there is no evidence that they raise the issue of Palestine in the presence of officials who have direct influence over US policy.

Like the minstrel shows mentioned at the start of this article it is all a performance. And when you are performing for an audience made up of capitalists and imperialists you will be dancing to their tune.


(1) 'I may be Irish but I'm not stupid': Joe Biden's controversial comments on Ireland, Sky News, 13 April 2023

(2)  Mary Lou McDonald on US trip: ‘How on earth could I justify not coming?’, Belfast Telegraph, 17 March 2024

(3)  Sally Rooney: Killing in Gaza has been supported by Ireland’s ‘good friend’ in the White House, Irish Times, 16 March  2024

(4)  Biden's heart is 'in the right place' in relation to Gaza conflict, Varadkar says, The Journal, 14 March 2024

 (5) Ibid.

(6)  Irish Eyes Scowl at Sinn Fein’s St Patrick’s Day With Biden, Consortium News, 14 March 2024

(7)  Sinn Féin puts dollars before Gaza during St Patrick’s Day visit to US, Irish Times, 15 Mar 2024

(8)  Varadkar denies softening language on Gaza during US trip, says tailoring message for audience needed, The Journal, 14 March 2024

(9)  Irish PM pushes Biden for immediate Gaza ceasefire, BBC News, 15 March 2024

(10)  Biden made clear US to continue support for Israel, says Taoiseach, RTE News, 16 March 2024

(11)  Taoiseach raises need for bombs to stop in Gaza, as central part of shamrock ceremony speech with US president, Irish Times, 17 March 2024

(12)  US visit unique opportunity for attracting investment – O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, Executive Office, 17 March 2024

(13)  Mary Lou McDonald on US trip: ‘How on earth could I justify not coming?’, Belfast Telegraph, 17 March 2024

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