Irish anger over Gaza may make for a tense White House St. Patrick’s Day

BELFAST — The annual St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House is shaping up to be a potentially tense affair, as President Biden prepares to welcome Irish leaders who strongly oppose his stance on Israel and Gaza and as a portion of the usual delegation boycotts the event.

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, and Northern Ireland’s first minister, Michelle O’Neill, are still among those scheduled to meet with Biden on Friday. But they may convey views widely held among their constituents that the United States should stop arming Israel and instead use its influence to end the assault on Gaza.

“I’ll use that opportunity … and tell them 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,” Varadkar said during a visit to Boston on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the SDLP, Northern Ireland’s smaller nationalist party, said it was not sending any representatives to Washington this week.

“The White House St. Patrick’s Day event is a party,” said Claire Hanna, an SDLP lawmaker in the British Parliament. “We have taken the principled position that we won’t be attending that party.”

She elaborated, “This is about the deep distress that we and our constituents feel practically every hour of the day about what’s going on in Gaza, and our attempt to use whatever opportunities we have — parliamentary and otherwise — to contribute and create international momentum to end this.”

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Pacifism is central to modern Irish identity. Ireland maintains a long-standing policy of military neutrality and is one of four European Union members that is not part of NATO.

At the same time, Ireland has long been one of the world’s most ardent champions of the Palestinian cause.

People in Ireland and Northern Ireland point to parallels between what Palestinians face and their own historical experience with colonialism, partition, oppression and violence. Some note that Arthur Balfour — whose 1917 letter promised British support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” — had earlier in his career served as a chief secretary for Ireland and opposed Irish home rule.

In a show of solidarity, a series of murals recreating the work of artists from Gaza was unveiled in Belfast this month. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations are planned across Ireland and Northern Ireland this week, including a march to the U.S. Consulate in Belfast on Saturday.

“We have experience of oppression that has lasted hundreds of years, so it is our duty to stand with the Palestinian people,” said Aoibhinn McConnell, a 16-year-old student in Belfast who is Jewish and has been active in pro-Palestinian protests.

“The history of the Irish people, both famine and conflict, are alive in our minds at this time,” Hanna said.

In a poll of voters in Ireland conducted by Ipsos B&A for the Irish Times last month, nearly two-thirds of respondents said “Israel has the right to defend itself.” But two-thirds also agreed that “Israel’s attacks on Gaza are not justified” and a little over half said that “Ireland should be stronger internationally in defending Palestinians.”

Biden has been described as one of the most Irish of U.S. presidents. His Irish Catholic heritage is central to his identity. He has claimed special affinity with the people of the island of Ireland. And he has made the traditional St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House a particularly festive event.

But Irish leaders in the north and south have been under pressure to boycott this year.

Gerry Carroll, a socialist politician who represents Belfast West in Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament, said Irish politicians should avoid being used to rehabilitate Biden — “smiling with him, handing over bowls of shamrocks, pints of Guinness.”

“Parties talk about peace on this island,” Carroll said. “If they are really committed to peace on the international stage, then they should shun the biggest supporter of terrorism across the world, and the biggest supporter of terror against Palestinians, and that is the U.S. government.”

National security adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated the administration’s staunch support for Israel in a White House briefing on Tuesday, saying that Biden “has had Israel’s back … and not just in terms of providing for Israel’s security against Hamas and Hezbollah but a broader constellation of steps in terms of military deterrence to keep this war from spinning out in ways that Israel could not handle.”

But Sullivan said the president “also is going to speak out when he has concerns about the level of protection for innocent civilians in Gaza, the level and access to humanitarian assistance for innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Varadkar’s office told The Washington Post that the prime minister planned to thank Biden for the continued U.S. role in helping to maintain peace on the island of Ireland and would “also discuss global issues, including the need to maintain assistance for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s ongoing invasion, and the urgent humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza.”

Varadkar used his Boston visit on Tuesday to make the case for a cease-fire in Gaza.

“We all know that there are guilty people who perpetrated unspeakable act of terrorism,” he said in prepared remarks. “But there are 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 appealed to the parties in the conflict by drawing on his own country’s experience.

“From our own painful history in Ireland, we know that cease-fire does not mean surrender, nor does it necessarily mean peace, and it certainly doesn’t mean weakness,” he said. “A cease-fire doesn’t mean forgiveness either. But it does present a glimmer of hope.”

O’Neill will be going to the White House as the first nationalist and Sinn Fein party member in the prestigious first minister role in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

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Sinn Fein said its delegation is seeking to strengthen support among Irish Americans and U.S. officials for Irish peace and reunification.

“We will also advocate for an end to the Israeli genocidal war and occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, for the establishment of a peace process in Palestine and self determination for the Palestinian people,” the party said in a statement to The Post. “Successive U.S. administrations have played a constructive role in the Irish peace process. Our clear message is that they need to adopt the same approach in relation to Palestine.”

Irish Palestinian Imam Jamal Iweida, chairman of Belfast Iqraa Mosque, said he understood why Irish politicians from major parties would have trouble deciding to boycott the St. Patrick’s Day event.

“It is a difficult position for Irish politicians to be in,” he said. “They can’t sacrifice their relationship with the White House.”

But he added: “The Irish Palestinian community have lost very close friends and family because of what is happening. It is very grim, very sad. We are seeing children suffering and starving. As humans on this earth we can’t wait any longer. We need the war to stop.”

Bellack reported from Washington.

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