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US President Joe Biden voiced strong support for the new Brexit deal on trade for Northern Ireland as he met the Irish premier at the White House.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar held talks with President Biden in the Oval Office as the two leaders marked St Patrick’s Day in Washington DC.
The traditional visit comes weeks after the UK and EU struck the Windsor Framework to reduce red tape on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that was created by the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The region’s largest unionist party, the DUP, is currently blocking powersharing at Stormont in protest at the trade barriers imposed by the withdrawal deal’s contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP says the Windsor Framework has gone some way to address its concerns, but it maintains some “fundamental problems” remain with the new accord.
Washington, London and Brussels are all keen for powersharing at Stormont to be restored ahead of next month’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement, and Mr Biden is due to travel to the island of Ireland in April to mark the event.
However, the DUP has insisted it will take time to deliberate on whether to return to devolution and does not consider the 25th anniversary a deadline it must work to.
Speaking to Mr Varadkar in front of the media ahead of their bilateral talks, President Biden noted his recent discussions with UK Prime Minster Rishi Sunak on the revised deal with the EU on post-Brexit trading arrangements.
“I very strongly supported the Windsor Framework, which I know you do too,” said the president.
Mr Varadkar then thanked the president for backing Ireland’s position on issues related to Brexit.
“I really want to thank you for your help and support and understanding for our position on Brexit in recent years, it really made a difference and we’ve got to a good place now, I think, with the Windsor Framework, where we can have an agreement that lasts which is important for Northern Ireland, and also important for British, Irish and European relations,” he said.
Mr Varadkar also spoke about the president’s upcoming visit to Ireland.
“I promise you that we’re going to roll out the red carpet and it’s going to be a visit like no other,” he said.
“Everyone’s excited about it already. We’re going to have great crowds who’d love to see you.”
The two politicians also praised each other’s respective stances on opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who is in Washington to attend St Patrick’s-themed events this week, is seeking further clarity and assurances from the UK government to address his party’s continuing concerns.
He has denied being pressured by US politicians to sign up to the new Brexit deal.
Sir Jeffrey is set to meet President Biden at a reception at the White House later on Friday.
The Taoiseach began the day of traditional St Patrick’s Day engagements in Washington DC at a breakfast event hosted by the US vice-president, Kamala Harris.
Mr Varadkar and his partner, Matt Barrett, posed for photos with Ms Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff, when they arrived at her residence early on Friday.
Inside, he hailed Ms Harris and the wider US’s work on LGBT rights.
Mr Varadkar thanked Ms Harris for her advocacy on LGBT issues and for being a “strong ally”.
“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. I know you’ve been such a strong ally to our community in that regard.”
Ahead of Friday’s events, Mr Varadkar was embroiled in a controversy after apologising for an “ill-judged” remark that was seen as an apparent reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
While reminiscing about his experience as an intern in the United States, the Taoiseach made a reference to possible concern about being an intern in the US capital at the time.
Mr Varadkar made the remarks on Thursday during an address to the Washington Ireland Programme, which helps young people develop career skills and which Mr Varadkar took part in, in 2000.
The Taoiseach’s comment came hours after attending an event honouring women’s role in the Good Friday Agreement, during which he praised Hillary Clinton for her sustained involvement in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for Mr Varadkar said in a statement following the event: “He made an ill-judged, off-the-cuff remark which he regrets. He apologises for any offence caused to anyone concerned.”
Former US president Bill Clinton and Mrs Clinton are due to take a leading role in commemorations planned in Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Monica Lewinsky was a young White House intern when she and the then-US president Mr Clinton embarked on a romance in the 1990s. She was pilloried for years after the scandal broke.
The affair almost forced Mr Clinton out of office and Ms Lewinsky has spoken about the devastating effect it had on her life in the years after.
Mr Varadkar sat beside Mrs Clinton at Thursday morning’s event at Georgetown University focusing on the role of women in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Friday’s political engagements will culminate with the Taoiseach handing over a crystal bowl of shamrocks to Mr Biden at the White House.