St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (never St. Patty’s Day — take it from a native born Irishman) in Washington are usually uncontroversial. Irish politicians aren’t particularly sentimental about shamrocks, leprechauns, green beer and all the rest of it. They are, however, happy to take advantage of the occasion: They fly over to the United States in droves to lobby for Irish interests, and American politicians (who like a good photo opportunity) are willing to play along. Tuesday’s celebrations, however, were different. The Obama administration snubbed two major players in Irish politics — one accidentally, the other deliberately.
So what was the accident?
Vice President Biden is genuinely proud of his Irish roots, with a particular fondness for Irish poetry. He’s also widely and genuinely liked by Irish politicians. However, when welcoming the Irish delegation (led by Ireland’s taoiseach, or prime minister), he cracked a joke that is causing great unhappiness among one, somewhat unwilling group of Irish people — Ulster Unionists. When opening the door to the delegation, he joked that “if you’re wearing orange, you’re not welcome in here.” Orange is traditionally the color of Ulster Unionists, who have historically wanted to preserve the union with Britain, and have been strongly opposed to all strains of Irish nationalism and republicanism. However, the main Ulster Unionist party is now in an uneasy power sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party. They have expressed their anger at the joke, claiming that it was a disgraceful slur against their political tradition.
This may seem like a non-issue to most Americans. But symbols can be incredibly important in Northern Ireland. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has done a lot of work promoting peace in Northern Ireland. As he notes in this video interview with Gideon Rose, symbolic issues like parades and flags are incredibly important, and incredibly divisive within Northern Ireland.
And what was the deliberate snub?
Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, claims that U.S. leaders were unwilling to meet with him. Adams says that a meeting with the State Department was initially confirmed — but that he wasn’t invited to any high level meetings with the president or high officials, instead being consigned to the general reception with the hoi polloi. The United States hasn’t said anything about why Adams is being frozen out, but it likely has to do with Sinn Fein’s intransigence in a current stand-off over power sharing. Adams has also become an increasingly controversial figure. As an article published in last week’s New Yorker discusses at length, Adams has been accused of ordering the cold-blooded murder of a single mother at the height of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. He has also admitted that he knew that his brother, Liam Adams, was a child abuser, but did not reveal it to the police, and is in the midst of a swirl of allegations about rape and sexual abuse by IRA members. While Sinn Fein’s popularity hasn’t suffered as badly as you might think, Adams himself is increasingly politically toxic.
What consequences will these snubs have for Irish politics?
Northern Ireland’s political system is going through one of its periodic crises at the moment: The power-sharing arrangement is not working, because of disagreements about spending cuts. Many had hoped that the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington would offer an opportunity for the United States to bully and persuade the different parties to resolve their differences. This is now more complicated than was initially expected. The accidental snub is less important. Biden’s joke will probably do no more than to temporarily complicate negotiations. Ulster Unionists will find it moderately useful in pushing back against U.S. pressure to reach a deal. The more overt snub of Gerry Adams is more significant. It hasn’t been accompanied by any statement or explanation, and it’s less a complete refusal to meet than a downgrading of relations. But one plausible interpretation is that it is a signal from the United States to Sinn Fein, suggesting that Sinn Fein (and in particular, figures like Adams) will find a cold welcome in future unless they fully accommodate themselves to current politics, participate in power sharing, and properly resolve their past association with terrorism.