WASHINGTON – Sporting a green tie and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day, President Joe Biden on Friday voiced his support for a recent economic accord affecting Ireland as he hosted the republic's prime minister, a longstanding meetup scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic the past two years.
While the annual Washington tradition is about celebrating the historic bonds of Ireland and the United States, Biden also took time to reflect on the approaching 25th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord — the agreement that helped end sectarian violence that had raged for decades over the question of Northern Ireland unifying with Ireland or remaining part of the United Kingdom.
The president also underscored a more recent agreement, known as the Windsor Framework, that aims to ease tensions over Northern Ireland's trading status in the aftermath of the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union and to maintain the quarter century-old peace accord.
“It’s a vital, vital step and that’s going to help ensure all the people in Northern Ireland have an opportunity to realize their full potential,” Biden said of the framework during remarks at a Capitol Hill luncheon to mark the holiday.
Earlier at the White House, he was presented with a bowl of shamrocks from Leo Varadkar, known as the taoiseach, a tradition that began in 1952.
The shamrocks made it to the White House last year even though then-prime minister Micheál Martin didn’t. He came down with COVID-19 and had to join the meeting virtually while isolated in nearby Blair House, where world leaders often stay. Biden and Martin's first annual meeting was virtual, too, because of the pandemic.
Biden, who often speaks of his Irish heritage and is fond of quoting Irish poets, declared March Irish-American heritage month. The White House even dyed the water of the South Lawn fountain green for the occasion.
Biden has said he plans to soon visit both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom, to mark the 25th anniversary of the big peace accord. In addition to his praise in that area, Vradeker saluted Biden and the U.S. for helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia.
“We really want to profoundly thank you and America for your leadership in relation to Ukraine," Varadker said. “We’re going to roll out the red carpet” for Biden's visit in Ireland, he said.
The Good Friday agreement came under increasing stress following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, but the recent accord between the U.K. and the EU addresses some of the issues that arose around commerce and goods that cross the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The White House said the Windsor Framework is an important step in maintaining the peace accord and Biden on Friday spoke of support for the framework, though Northern Ireland's political leaders have called for changes.
Biden, at an early evening White House reception for Varadkar, noted last month’s attempted murder in Northern Ireland of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, a well-known officer who has led investigations into murders, organized crime and dissident paramilitary groups.
The 1998 Good Friday peace accord largely ended the conflict, known as “the Troubles,” but small IRA splinter groups continue to mount sporadic attacks on security forces.
The leaders of Ireland's five biggest political parties, including Irish nationalists Sinn Fein — which was allied with the IRA during Northern Ireland’s decades of Catholic-Protestant violence — and the Democratic Unionist Party, issued a rare joint statement to condemn the attack on Caldwell.
Biden said it was important for the parties to stand “shoulder to shoulder” following the attack. “We’ll have to continue to work to protect peace and stability,” he said.
Varadkar took over in December for a second term as part of a job-sharing deal made by the country’s centrist coalition government. The two leaders discussed the continued support of Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion.
Varadkar and his partner, Matthew Barrett, attended a breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff at the Vice President’s home, and Varadkar told the crowd there that Ireland is grateful for the “close and deep bond with these United States.”
He said the U.S. has played a central role in promoting peace in Ireland “at critical points when few others had the influence to do so.” And Varadkar said the U.S. has been strong on LGBTQ rights.
“From Stonewall to Sacramento to San Francisco. America has led the way when it comes to LGBT equality,” he said. “I don’t think I would be here today were it not for what America did.”
Varadkar met with the president in the Oval Office before heading to the Capitol for a lunch with congressional leaders.
Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy noted that the annual lunch at the Capitol has brought together Republicans and Democrats dating back to President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill to "set aside the issues of the day to gather to toast” Ireland.
McCarthy, who like Biden has Irish ancestry, joked that a “clash is brewing” between the president and himself.
“I think you might be able to settle this for us: Which one of us is more Irish ?”
“I think we have a chance to make hope and history rhyme with all our differences,” Biden said. “I agree with the speaker. There’s no reason why we can’t find common ground. There’s no reason why we can’t hope to change this direction.”
Varadkar, who as a college student spent a summer working on Capitol Hill, quipped that "it’s a pleasure to be sat next to the speaker and the president, not to keep the peace but rather to thank them for doing so much to protect peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland.”
Associated Press writers Hannah Fingerhut and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.