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‘Important’ for US to remain open to trade agreements, Varadkar says

The US needs to remain open to “good trade agreements” to remain attractive to Irish investment, Ireland’s premier has said.

Leo Varadkar made the remarks at one of several events focused on US-Ireland trade in the US capital on Thursday.

Mr Varadkar is on a week-long visit to the US to mark St Patrick’s Day on Sunday, and will meet President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday.

During a “fireside chat” with US Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne Byrne on Thursday, Mr Varadkar was asked what America could do to remain attractive to Irish investment.

The Taoiseach said Ireland and the US enjoyed long-standing, mutually benefited trade relations, emphasising that he was “proud” Ireland was one of the top 10 investors in the US.

However, when pressed on the topic, the Taoiseach said: “You’re obviously doing a lot of things right and Irish companies invest in America because they see enormous opportunities here.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish ambassador to the US Geraldine Byrne Nason with US Chamber of Commerce president Suzanne Clark (Cillian Sherlock/PA)

“There’s not a huge amount of advice that I can give you. I do think one area that is important though is openness to trade.”

“Notwithstanding difficulties that we have ratifying trade agreements at EU level, we are getting them through.

“It’s seems to be more difficult here and I’d hope that across the aisle – both parties – the US will see that free trade with good trade agreements actually makes everyone better off and that’s an area where I think we can do a bit better into the future.”

Mr Varadkar started the trip on Monday and since then has spoken several times at about how he will use the special platform of St Patrick’s Day visit to press Mr Biden to back a ceasefire in the Middle East.

However, earlier on Thursday, he denied softening his language on Gaza throughout the week.

At the start of the week in Boston, Mr Varadkar told the crowd that “innocent men, women and children” in Gaza should not be subject to collective punishment.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media at the Salamander Hotel, in Washington (Niall Carson/PA)

He told the audience that “no-one can avert their eyes” from the deaths of thousands of children in Gaza.

However, during an address at the Ireland Funds gala in Washington on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said that Palestinian civilians are being subject to “humiliation and starvation” during the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Asked by reporters on Thursday if his use of the term “humiliation” rather than explicit references to death was an indication of rolling back his rhetoric, Mr Varadkar said: “No, not at all.”

He said he would not be softening his tone or language on the issue but said there was a need to tailor messaging to specific audiences.

“There’s nothing I wouldn’t say here that I wouldn’t say back home.

“But I think any time you speak to any audience, or any time you go anywhere in the world, you know, we have to get the tone right and tailor the message for the audience.”

He added: “What I said back home, about Palestine and Gaza, I’ll be saying here too and I think I’ve used the term collective punishment in relation to Palestinians.

“And we all know what that means, it’s a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Mr Varadkar’s Washington comments on Gaza also received a more lukewarm reception than preceding remarks on continued support for Ukraine.

Asked if he believed the reception to the comments was an indicator that it was going to be difficult to raise the Middle East conflict with Mr Biden, Mr Varadkar said: “I suppose it depends on the audience.

“I was really encouraged by the response in terms of what I had to say about Ukraine because we need America in this battle to save Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty and independence, and I don’t think the war will stop in Ukraine.

“If Ukraine falls, Putin will have another target – and there’s a number of European prime ministers in town today, I’m not the only one, and we’re very much trying to put that message across to our American friends.

“If Putin is successful in Ukraine, he will at some point test Nato, and the consequences then for all of us are very serious.

“So I’m very keen to use any opportunity I have to speak to US Congressional leaders in particular about getting the legislation passed to provide the funding and support for Ukraine that it needs.

“I appreciate that there will be difference of opinions in relation to Israel and Gaza – you know, there’s very strong historic support for Israel in the US, for lots of different reasons, but that’s not going to deflect me from saying what I feel needs to be said.”

Mr Varadkar said there had not been any negative reaction to his remarks on Gaza during the trip so far.

On Friday, he will meet with US vice-president Kamala Harris before holding a bilateral with Mr Biden.