Gaza at top of the agenda for Irish PM’s White House visit

Irish leader plans to ask Biden to facilitate an immediate cease-fire; his St. Patrick’s Day trip was dogged by calls to boycott the U.S. because it supports Israel

Clodagh Kilcoyne - Pool/Getty Images

Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar (R) and President Joe Biden at Dublin Castle

As the White House prepares for St. Patrick’s Day, breaking out the shamrocks and preparing a speech in which President Joe Biden will express pride in his Irish heritage, there’s another item on the agenda that one may not normally associate with a celebration of the Emerald Isle: the war in Gaza.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said he plans to call for an immediate cease-fire in his scheduled meeting with Biden on Friday.

Ireland has long been one of the European countries most critical of Israel, and has been among the most antagonistic Western countries to the Jewish state following Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist massacre.

Ireland joined a case at the International Court of Justice examining the legality of Israel’s practices in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. When countries withdrew funding from the U.N. Relief and Works Agency due to some of its workers’ participation in the Oct. 7 attack, Ireland announced an additional contribution. Ireland and Spain have asked the European Commission to assess whether Israel is committing human rights violations that would invalidate its trade deal with the EU – Israel’s largest trading partner, accounting for 28.8% of trade. 

Varadkar has said Israel is “blinded by rage” and at risk of committing a massacre in Rafah, while Irish Trade Minister Simon Coveney said that Israel was acting “like a monster.” Ireland’s Junior Foreign Minister Sean Fleming accused Israel of spreading disinformation, claiming that the hundreds of miles of tunnels found under Gaza are just “a few little manholes.” The Irish parliament held a vote on a motion to expel Israeli Ambassador Dana Erlich, which was voted down. 

Varadkar also faced criticism for his comments on 9-year-old Irish-Israeli Emily Hand’s release after being held hostage by Hamas terrorists for 50 days. He posted on X (formerly Twitter) that “an innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned, and we breathe a massive sigh of relief. Our prayers have been answered.” 

While a longer statement from Varadkar’s office described her abduction, the post drew fire from Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog who said the statement was “unacceptable,” calling it “shameful” that some refuse to mention “Israel, kidnapping, terrorists or Hamas.” 

Meanwhile, Ireland has not condemned Hezbollah’s daily missile attacks on Israel — even as 550 Irish troops remain deployed with UNIFIL, the U.N.’s peacekeeping body in southern Lebanon. 

In Boston, his first stop in the U.S., Varadkar vowed earlier this week to tell Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, with whom he is scheduled to have breakfast on Saturday, and congressional leaders “how Irish people feel, and that is that we want to see a cease-fire immediately, for the killing to stop, the hostages to be released without condition, food and medicine to get into Gaza and we also want to see a new peace process.”

Varadkar praised Biden as “a real supporter of Ireland,” as well as “somebody who wants to see the violence [in Gaza] stop,” and “is working towards a cease-fire.” 

Speaking at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Varadkar called the Oct. 7 attack “an act of pure evil and hatred, and it can never be forgotten or excused,” but said that “no child ever gave their consent for terrorist acts. No child should be punished for them.”

“The cries of the innocent will haunt us forever if we stay silent,” Varadkar said of Gazans.

This week, 38 Irish government ministers and parliamentary leaders traveled to 86 cities around the world — none in Israel this year — to take part in St. Patrick’s Day festivities over the course of five days. This includes visits to 11 different cities in the U.S., such as Austin, Texas, where Irish Media Minister Catherine Martin will host a panel at the SXSW music festival. 

Leading up to the trip, Varadkar’s office reportedly received over 4,000 calls about his planned meeting in the White House and was dogged by calls to cancel his U.S. trip. 

A Biden administration official told JI that “the Middle East and our efforts to substantially increase the amount of humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza is one of a range of issues they’re expected to discuss. I would expect them to spend a good deal of time on other topics as well including Ukraine and Northern Ireland.”

Martin, of the Green Party, faced calls to pull out of SXSW, after the Irish musical acts planning to perform decided to boycott the festival because of its association with the U.S. military industry, which sells arms to Israel.

Varadkar said in response that he hadn’t spoken to Martin, but that “people have the right to boycott events should they choose to and I totally respect that, but it’s not the policy of the Irish governments to engage in boycotts.”

The Journal, an Irish online publication, argued that the celebration in Washington “will be a jarring image to be beamed around the world, particularly given Ireland’s strong support for Palestine.”

“The Taoiseach [prime minister] will need to tread carefully on this trip,” Journal political editor Christina Finn wrote before Varadakar’s departure. “One misstep, one ill-thought-out event, and Varadkar will face significant criticism back home… He will have to mention and shine a spotlight on the dire situation facing the Palestinian people.”

Alan Shatter, the former justice minister of Ireland and a fellow at the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, called in a blog post for the Biden administration and members of Congress to “confront both the Irish government and the leaders of [opposition party] Sinn Fein, also visiting Washington, on their obsessive unbalanced criticism of Israel since the Hamas-conducted pogrom of 7th October.”

“Varadkar should be asked why Ireland does not stand with the USA in supporting Israel against Iran’s terrorist proxies,” Shatter wrote. “The perversity of a state whose Taoiseach visited the German ambassador in Dublin in May 1945 to express condolences on the death of Hitler and which denied Jews trying to escape Nazi tyranny and Holocaust survivors a safe haven considering accusing Israel of genocide should also not be ignored.”

Shatter also warned of an “escalation of antisemitism in Ireland, partially fuelled by the Irish government’s extreme anti-Israel rhetoric.”

The Irish Jewish community has felt “a huge uptick” in antisemitism since Oct. 7, and has increased security in Jewish institutions, The Irish Times reported.

Ireland is one of the few European states that have not adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

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