Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and US President Joe Biden arrive for a Banquet Dinner at Dublin Castle in 2023.


Dublin in tumult as leaders jet off for St Patrick’s Day junkets after referendum rout

Irish Government ministers faced widespread criticism after jetting-off for St Patrick's Day celebrations in the US and elsewhere, just a week after a botched referendum campaign led to the highest ever “no” vote in Ireland’s referendum history


Irish Government ministers faced widespread criticism after jetting-off for St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US and elsewhere, just a week after a botched referendum campaign led to the highest ever “no” vote in Ireland’s referendum history.

The family referendum – defining families as “durable relationships” and the care referendum – stating the Government would “strive” to help family carers – were both shot down in flames.

Still, some 35 ministers made their way to Dublin Airport as the political fallout in the capital rained down. Among those taking flight was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, who headed to Washington DC on March 11.

Varadkar’s trip to see US President Joe Biden was already controversial to government critics who said it illustrated backing for the US support of Israel in the Gaza conflict.

A February poll showed 52 per cent of Irish people thought: ​​”Ireland should be stronger internationally in defending the Palestinians,” more than double the 23 per cent who disagreed.

“Tell Biden there will be no shamrock when there is not a total ceasefire and an end to the bloody occupation,” Solidarity TD Mick Barry told Varadkar in Ireland’s Dáil (Parliament) at the time.

“You seem to be a little bit obsessed about the bowl of shamrock and that takes about 20 seconds,” Varadkar retorted, noting he would have two meetings with Biden over three days.

Varadkar’ latest US jaunt kicks off with a meeting with Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy before he will speak that evening at Boston’s JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

On March 15, he will meet Biden in the Oval Office after breakfast with Vice President Kamala Harris. He then heads to Capitol Hill to meet Mike Johnson, a Republican who is speaker of the House of Representatives.

Then, on March 17, St Patrick’s day, he returns to the White House more informally, to present Biden with the bowl of shamrocks.

As other political bigwigs made their choices for a trip away, Micheál Martin, the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), opted for Canada, while health minister Stephen Donnelly headed to Australia as junior finance minister Jennifer Carroll MacNeill jetted off to Miami

While Varadkar’s Government presented the getaways as diplomacy as usual, online commentators hammered ministers for their “junkets”, which come after the governing coalition’s two referendums were humiliatingly rejected on March 8.

After MacNeill tweeted: “Yes, yes vote cast in Killiney and now I’m off to the airport for St Patrick’s Day travel to promote Ireland in the USA and Mexico,” voter Kieran McCarthy replied on X: “I’m a full-time Carer and spent the morning cleaning poo off my Mam who has dementia … I’m glad you get to use our tax money to have a holiday. Vote No/No.”

Senator Tom Clonan, who has a disabled son, had successfully called for voters to reject the Government’s care referendum, saying it absolved the State from any responsibility for caring for disabled citizens.

There was no immediate word, though, from disability minister Roderic O’Gorman, who was headed away to Japan, or social protection minister Heather Humphreys, soaring off to Chicago.

“Do you think you’ll get there on time for the 17th?” read another reply to MacNeill, while a third quipped: “Have they not already heard of us in America?”

At best, Varadkar’s Government had not foreseen the possibility it might lose both March 8 referendums, or what negative reactions might ensue following most senior governmental figures leaving Dublin on business-class flights immediately afterwards.

For justice minister Helen McEntee, it was New York, while sports minister Thomas Byne opted for Phoenix and Senate chair Jerry Buttimer fancied a spell in San Francisco.

Culture minister Catherine Martin chose to put her feet up in Nashville and Austin, while public-expenditure minister Paschal Donohoe favoured France. Trade minister Simon Coveney felt India was his preferred destination.

Former Irish ambassador to the US Daniel Mulhall said other European Union ambassadors envied what he termed Ireland’s ability to monopolise the agenda in the US for a day.

“When I was in Washington, my EU colleagues were agog at Ireland’s ability to hog the limelight there for a full day each year,” he noted.

According to some, there is little point complaining about the US visits. As Constantin Gurdgiev, a finance professor at Trinity College Dublin and California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said: “Boycotting the White House is about as stupid as boycotting the Moon.

“It’s there. It has immense power.”

The now-annual, almost semi-sacred tradition of shamrocks to the Oval Office boasts some 70 years of history.

In 1952, Ireland’s ambassador John Hearne sent a small box of them to then-president Harry Truman. He was not in to receive them, apparently, but sent a note of thanks – and an annual tradition was born. Taoiseach John Costello’s offering arrived in 1956.

These occurrences gradually “moved St Patrick’s Day up the political agenda”, according to Michael Kennedy, executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy programme.

From quiet origins it became “a full-blown media event” during the presidency of John F Kennedy, he said.

In that case, then-Canadian ambassador Thomas Kiernan sourced shamrock from near Kennedy’s ancestral home in Ireland’s County Wexford.

Ireland’s annual audience with the US president also offered a chance for Richard Nixon to discuss the “Troubles” in Ireland in the mid-1960s, as well as Bill Clinton to push the peace process by offering a handshake in 1995 with then-Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

That came in return for agreeing to discuss decommissioning arms with then-UK prime minister John Major’s government.