A very Irish American president finally got to experience the most Irish presidential tradition after years of pandemic restrictions canceled the annual St. Patrick’s Day toast in the Capitol with Irish leadership.
President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., took the opportunity to flex their shared Irish heritage at Friday’s Friends of Ireland lunch, acting as if the homeland of their ancestors could be enough to get past their political differences.
The two lawmakers were sitting on either side of Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and while they appeared friendly for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, this was the first time Biden and McCarthy had seen each other since the State of the Union address last month. The two politicians are currently battling over the 2024 budget and the need to raise the debt limit, which McCarthy seemed to be addressing before he took a different turn.
“A clash, people say, is brewing between the president and I. What should we do?” McCarthy said to the crowd of roughly 50 lawmakers, diplomats, government officials from Ireland and Northern Ireland, and guests.
“I think you may be able to tell us,” the speaker said, turning to Varadkar, the Irish leader. “Which one of us is more Irish?”
McCarthy likened his relationship with Biden to the relationship decades earlier between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. — two men at odds politically but united by their Irish heritage.
“From one Irish American to another, I want to strive every day to live up to the example of President Reagan and Tip O’Neill,” McCarthy said, addressing Biden.
Biden matched McCarthy’s lighthearted tone and agreed, “There’s no reason we can’t find common ground.”
Varadkar even nodded to the growing disagreements, joking he may have been seated between the two of them to help keep the peace.
Friday’s luncheon on Capitol Hill was the first normal and in-person Friends of Ireland lunch in several years.
The 2021 visit was called off because of pandemic travel restrictions. Varadkar visited the White House in person in March 2020 under President Donald Trump.
Last year, then Taoiseach Micheal Martin came to the U.S. for the celebration but tested positive for COVID-19 while on American soil, the day after sitting next to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a dinner event. The diagnosis sparked a flurry of contact-tracing concerns — though Pelosi was fine — and Martin and Biden met virtually while he stayed in Blair House, just across the street from the White House.
On Friday, Biden and Varadkar spoke of the war in Ukraine, for which the taoiseach has offered support, even though Ireland is militarily neutral.
“While Ireland is a militarily neutral country, we’re not politically neutral in the face of violations of international law and human rights,” he said to a round of applause from lawmakers.
Biden also nodded to the political situation in Northern Ireland, and Varadkar asked if Biden could be the catalyst to get the Northern Ireland assembly up and running again.
Varadkar said Biden is very informed and aware of what’s happening in Ireland “and very supportive of our efforts and would like to see the Good Friday Agreement operating as it should.”
The lunch concluded with some Irish tunes from the Grammy-nominated group “Cherish the Ladies” and a performance by a pair of male Irish dancers.
Earlier in the day, Varadkar had breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris at the Naval Observatory before he went to the White House for a meeting with Biden and top Cabinet officials from both countries.
Varadkar and Biden discussed a visit back to the president’s ancestral lands. Biden is expected to visit both Ireland and Northern Ireland during a trip coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday accords, though details have not been finalized. Varadkar promised to “roll out the red carpet” for his arrival.