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Tensions over Israel-Hamas war loom over Irish Taoiseach’s usually jovial annual visit to White House

St. Patrick’s Day at the White House is ordinarily a moment for celebration, with the fountains dyed green and a crystal bowl of shamrocks exchanged as a symbol of friendly ties between the United States and Ireland.

There will still be shamrocks this year, but Israel’s war in Gaza is lending a darker backdrop to the occasion. President Joe Biden is welcoming a delegation of Irish leaders under pressure from their constituents — Ireland is a place where support for the Palestinian cause runs deep, informed by what many regard as shared history — to make a strong case for bringing about a permanent ceasefire.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach or prime minister, voiced widely held Irish sympathies for Palestinians when he met with Biden in the Oval Office. While he rebuffed calls by some Irish politicians to boycott the annual White House stop, he made plain the Gaza war lends fresh urgency to this year’s talks.

“You know my view that we need to have a ceasefire as soon as possible, to get food and medicine in, hostages out, and we need to talk about how we can make that happen,” Varadkar said in the Oval Office, adding it was his view that a two-state solution was the only path to lasting peace and security in the Middle East. Biden said he agreed on both points.

Meeting over breakfast earlier Friday morning with Vice President Kamala Harris, Varadkar said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza “will haunt us all for years to come.” He said the Irish “know how quickly atrocities could lead to calls for vengeance, creating new cycles of hatred and bitterness.”

And he praised Harris’s forceful recent calls for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, which he said “showed great courage.”

“I’m sure it can’t have been easy, but it was the right thing to do,” he said.

The White House said ahead of Varadkar’s meeting with Biden the two men were expected to discuss the situation in the Middle East and humanitarian efforts in Gaza along with a range of other issues.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, neither Irish nor White House officials said they expected it to be hostile or tense, and Varadkar told reporters in Boston, “I’m not here to tell (Biden) off or tick him off.”

When speaking to a luncheon on Capitol Hill later Friday, Biden said, “We had a meeting earlier today, I told you that I’m deeply grateful for Ireland’s unwavering humanitarian aid to the people of not only Ukraine but also Gaza.”

Still, the war will make for serious discussion on a visit that, in previous years, was marked more by levity and a robust celebration of Biden’s deep roots in Ireland. Last year, Varadkar declared Biden “unmistakably a son of Ireland” and announced the president’s forthcoming visit to the island.

When Biden visited a month later, he was met with large supportive crowds during visits to various towns exploring his ancestral roots, including a speech delivered to tens of thousands outside St. Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina.

The months since have seen that support erode, as the war in Gaza precipitates a dire humanitarian crisis that some Irish politicians have said Biden is complicit in fueling.

Biden, who is under similar pressures among progressive Democrats in the United States to do and say more on the plight of Palestinians, has remained staunch in his support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas.

While the president has recently begun ratcheting up calls for an “immediate ceasefire” as part of a deal that would include the release of hostages held in Gaza, and announced new steps to get humanitarian aid into the enclave, he has stopped short of conditioning US arms shipments to Israel. He said in an interview last weekend “I’m never going to leave Israel” when asked about red lines in his support.

That is a distant cry from the stance Irish leaders across the political spectrum adopted from nearly the start of the war, when many criticized the scale of Israel’s response and insisted on protections for innocent Palestinian civilians. Large-scale protests in Dublin and elsewhere called for an immediate end to the fighting. In November, Varadkar said Israel’s response to the Hamas terror attacks resembled “something approaching revenge.”

Traveling in Boston this week, Varadkar condemned the Hamas terror attacks on October 7 that prompted the current war. But he also said there were “innocent men, women and children who are suffering for those sins, and they should not be subject to collective punishment.”

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

Support for Palestinians has long been deeply rooted in Ireland, where many see parallels between the island’s own decadeslong experience with partition, violent conflict and colonial rule.

The “shared colonial experience” between the Irish and Palestinians has “has undoubtedly shaped how people from Ireland engage with postcolonial conflicts,” said Jane Ohlmeyer, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin and author of “Making Empire: Ireland, Imperialism and the Early Modern World.”

“Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony. Ireland, unlike other Western European states — many of whom were themselves imperial powers — but like Palestine (and other colonies that comprised part of the British Empire) had direct and sustained experience of imperialism,” she said.

There are historic ties as well: the early-20th century British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who earlier in his career served as chief secretary for Ireland and opposed Irish home rule, promised in 1917 the UK would support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The strongly held views in support of Palestinian civilians and disapproval over Biden’s handling of the conflict led some political parties in Ireland to announce they would not send representatives to the St. Patrick’s Day event at the White House.

Speaking last week in Ireland’s Dáil, or national assembly, Socialist Party member Mick Barry called on Varadkar to skip the traditional visit.

“In not much more than a week’s time, the Taoiseach plans to get on a plane, travel to the US Capitol and join Joe Biden in a day of celebration. He plans to give the latter a bowl of shamrock on behalf of the Irish people. He plans to pose, no doubt, for photographs with a man who has armed and financed mass murder,” he said.

Barry’s opposition to Biden’s foreign policy predated the war in Gaza; he boycotted Biden’s address to the Dáil in April.

Michelle O’Neill, the first minister of Northern Ireland who is traveling to the White House this week for St. Patrick’s Day meetings, vowed recently in an op-ed to raise the Gaza issue directly with American officials.

“We oppose Israel’s apartheid regime,” she wrote in The Irish News, adding: “We will state the case that Israel must be held to account for its actions and will urge the US to join calls for a ceasefire.”

In February, O’Neill became the first nationalist politician to assume to role of first minister after a power-sharing government resumed after a two-year break. She represents the pro-united Ireland party Sinn Fein, once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved government was a top priority for Biden and is certain to be celebrated during the St. Patrick’s Day meetings and celebrations. The power sharing setup was a central provision of the Good Friday agreement the US helped broker to bring about an end to the decades of sectarian violence known as The Troubles.

Some Irish leaders see the success of the yearslong effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland as a potential model for US leadership in the Middle East. Varadkar, who this week took note of the recent shift in Biden’s language calling for a temporary ceasefire, said American backing for a new peace process was essential.

“It happened before with President Carter. It happened before with President Clinton, I think, hopefully, President Biden can take the lead on this,” he said.

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