Biting the hand that feeds you? Calls to boycott St. Patrick’s Day at the White House

Trinity News interviews Irish government officials to explore the controversy surrounding calls for the boycott of the Taoiseach’s annual trip to the United States for St. Patrick’s Day in opposition to U.S. funding to Israel

“I think you need to be very careful about any idea of boycotting, the Irish relationship with the United States is a very long standing one, a very valuable one, on many, many dimensions.”

So said Mary Lou MacDonald in a statement to the Journal when asked about calls to boycott St Patrick’s Day festivities in the White House. In a way, her statement could be said to aptly describe the Irish government’s current unease with long-time allies, the United States, and their funding of Israel’s assault on Gaza. Whilst Irish politicians have condemned Israel and called for a ceasefire, there has been reservation regarding whether criticism ought to be extended to Israel’s main ally: the United States. Funding around 16% of the Israeli defence budget, according to recent Congressional Research Service figures, the USA is arguably the most important third-party actor in establishing a ceasefire.

The question of whether or not Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should celebrate St Patrick’s Day with President Joe Biden has tested the government’s willingness to offend Ireland’s valuable allies in the name of advocacy. In an interview with Trinity News, Senator and Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer, who will be travelling to the States for the occasion, said that whilst he saw calls for a boycott as legitimate, they were “missing out on a point that we [Irish Senators and Ministers] have access to politicians, to a media market, to influential leaders and to business leaders that we would not have, and to cut that off would be detrimental to the case we’re making around this particular issue.” In other words, the way Buttimer and others see it, boycotting the U.S. would simply shut down valuable discussion about the future of Palestine. 

One petition … has gained over 17,000 signatures”

Calls from the public for Varadkar to boycott the annual White House visit for St Patrick’s Day have received substantial support. One petition, which states that “this would be a powerful sign of solidarity with Palestine that would reflect the feelings of Irish people & have a massive impact around the world” has gained over 17,000 signatures. Politicians such as Richard Boyd Barrett TD and Mick Barry TD have also expressed their support for a boycott. Speaking to Trinity News, Barry noted that it wasn’t just Varadkar “who’s going to celebrate St Patrick’s Day with genocide Joe Biden, it’s Mary Lou MacDonald and Michelle O’Neill as well.”

Ireland has historically been supportive of the Palestinian cause. In 1980, it became the first EU country to voice support for an independent Palestinian state, in addition to being the last European country to receive an Israeli embassy. An intrinsic cultural sympathy toward Palestine has often been attributed to a shared history of colonialism and occupation. This is something that has become increasingly visible since the events of October 7. 

With that said, Ireland has, without question, enjoyed valuable political and economic support from the U.S.. Stemming largely from the extraordinary Irish diaspora living in the States, the relationship between the two nations has benefitted Ireland immeasurably, both historically and today. In a post-Brexit world, America has used its political and economic power to influence Britain’s behaviour towards Ireland. Notably in 2021, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi cautioned Britain that there would be no post-Brexit trade deal with the United States on the table if the Northern Ireland peace agreement was destroyed. 

On Palestine specifically, there may be a constraint in how far Irish politicians are truly willing to go but Ireland has always retained autonomy on this issue and become well-known for it”

Speaking to Trinity News, Liam Kneafsey, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin, said this American support “constrains Ireland to a certain degree, but it is also worth saying that Ireland has not traditionally aligned entirely with US foreign policy and has resisted US pressure at the UN on various issues. On Palestine specifically, there may be a constraint in how far Irish politicians are truly willing to go but Ireland has always retained autonomy on this issue and become well-known for it.”

During his interview, Buttimer touched on Ireland’s “very special relationship with the United States of America” both “culturally and economically”. Adding, that he saw St Patrick’s Day visits from the Taoiseach and government ministers as offering “an opportunity to copper-fasten and continue that special relationship.”

“Friendship” was a recurring word in Senator Buttimer’s discussion of the relationship, speaking of President Joe Biden as “a great friend of Ireland’s”, and as a “champion around Ireland’s decision around Brexit.” He suggested that boycotts do not account for “the need for friends to communicate and have that conversation,” adding “I always make the point that you can have a debate with your friend and you can argue an articulate viewpoint, and sometimes it’s the friend’s voice that gets into the ear, gets into the psyche, that helps to lead the change.”

Buttimer conveyed a conviction that Ireland possessed communication channels with the US, with a capacity for far greater political change than anything boycotts could achieve. He said of a boycott: “it would close down a media market, it would close down a diplomatic channel, and it would close down an opportunity to speak with the most important person in the world.” 

What remained unacknowledged by Buttimer was the larger question regarding whether boycotts would ever be considered by Irish politicians as an acceptable method of advocacy in dealings with powerful allies. It is not unreasonable to assume that this unwillingness to engage in contentious acts of protest in part stems from fear.  Afterall, the offence and embarrassment that could be brought upon the United States following an Irish boycott might compromise Ireland’s national interests. The line of argument frequently deployed by Buttimer and other Irish politicians on the matter often dismisses fear as a potential factor in decision-making.

Barry expressed that he didn’t believe the Irish political establishments have “ever given consideration to boycotting the St Patrick’s Day celebrations” and that “their starting position from the get-go was there’s no way we’re boycotting this.”

According to Kneafsey “the pressure of domestic public opinion does not seem to be enough for Irish politicians to question the appropriateness of these visits or to consider a broader boycott. Irish politicians are aware of the domestic disapproval of visits but likely do not believe there will be any specific electoral consequences for this [continuing with the visits].” He continued by saying that while Ireland is “well-known” for its support for the Palestinian people internationally, the Irish government is “unlikely to adopt a position they feel positions us as a true outlier diplomatically whether this is appropriate or not. It is unlikely a boycott would be enacted purely as a moral stand.” 

When questioned about a hypothetical scenario in which Ireland pursued boycott measures, Buttimer said he thought this “would have an impact” on Irish relations with the United States, as it would “show we’re jumping on a proposal for short-term articulation.” This statement gave the  impression that politicians such as Buttimer are wary of how the U.S. might perceive Ireland as a consequence of a boycott and the potential implications this may bear for future diplomatic relations between the nations. 

Kneafsey, on the other hand, explained that “the benefits of a potential boycott are both moral and demonstrative. It would be a significant move for a state like Ireland with its historical relationship with the United States to boycott a White House visit and would make international headlines. This could provide momentum for other advocacy groups in other states to push their governments to do the same as Ireland would have shown the way. It may also in turn generate momentum and support for wider-ranging boycotts and forms of solidaristic action because it would demonstrate the willingness, under sufficient pressure, of the Irish government to take such a position.”

According to Barry, “this is a genocide taking place before our eyes, in our lifetime. It is not the time for business as usual.”