Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on President Biden’s Upcoming Virtual Bilateral with Ireland


Via Teleconference

5:03 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Greetings to everyone from the National Security Council here at the White House.  My name is [senior administration official], and on behalf of the NSC Press team, I would like to welcome our participants to an on-background conference call to discuss the President’s virtual bilateral meeting with Ireland. 

Today we are joined by [senior administration official] to offer a preview of tomorrow’s meeting.  We will begin with remarks from [senior administration official], and then we’ll open it up for question and answer, as Rob mentioned. 

As a reminder, today’s briefing will be on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.”  And it will be embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow. 

We’ll also be distributing a factsheet.  And the contents of that will also be embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow. 

And with that I will turn it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you very much.  And thank you to everybody for joining.  We, at the White House, are very excited for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic is preventing the traditional White House celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which is something that dates back to 1952.  But despite the pandemic, we are determined to fully celebrate the holiday in recognition, both of the holiday as well as our strong bilateral ties with Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Day is a particularly special event for President Biden given his Irish heritage, and so he is also committed to keeping tomorrow’s events as close to the way that they would appear if we were doing this in person.  And he looks forward to hosting the Taoiseach and celebrating St Patrick’s Day in person, hopefully next year, once we get past the pandemic.

So let me just start by running through what the schedule for tomorrow is going to look like.  And as I said, the aim has certainly been to try and keep the schedule as close to how events happened over the last 60 years or so when we have been doing these meetings in person. 

So tomorrow morning, Vice President Harris is going to meet virtually with the Taoiseach of Ireland, Micheál Martin, in place of the breakfast that the Vice President has hosted over the last number of years for the Taoiseach on St. Patrick’s Day.  She’ll be reaffirming the enduring cultural, historic, economic, and people-to-people ties between the United States and Ireland, as well as discussing a wide range of bilateral and multilateral challenges during the meeting. 

There will be a pool spray at the top of the meeting to capture the opening remarks by both the Vice President and the Taoiseach.

Following their bilateral meeting, the Vice President and the Taoiseach will be participating in a virtual event that is celebrating the winners of the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship.  This is a fellowship program administered by the Council on International Educational Exchange that awards fellowships to American students from underrepresented groups of color to study abroad for the summer.

The program was inspired by Frederick Douglass’s travel to Ireland in 1845 and 1846, which he said was the first place where he felt treated like a man. 

This year’s class, along with students from last year’s class who were unable to travel to the pandemic, will follow in his footsteps by traveling to Ireland this summer, if COVID conditions allow.  The government of Ireland is providing funding to help support this year’s fellowship class.

Again, opening remarks by both the Taoiseach and the Vice President will be open to the press pool.

Early afternoon on Wednesday, President Joe Biden is very much looking forward to hosting the Taoiseach for a virtual bilateral meeting.  They will reaffirm the deep historic partnership and extraordinary people-to-people ties between our two countries.  They will also discuss combatting COVID-19, addressing global challenges, including through Ireland’s current seat on the U.N. Security Council, increasing our shared prosperity, and supporting political and economic stability in Northern Ireland.

There will be a press avail at the top, where both leaders will be giving remarks.  And of great importance to the President, there will also be the traditional ceremony with the Shamrock bowl, with the Irish government having sent a beautiful engraved bowl here to the White House in Washington, along with shamrocks so that we will be able to preserve this part of the bilateral meeting and the ties between our countries, even though we are doing this in a virtual way this year.

In the afternoon, Vice President Harris will meet virtually with Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, of the Northern Ireland Executive.  President Biden will be dropping by that meeting to reinforce U.S. support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, as well as peace and stability in Northern Ireland. 

We expect that the Vice President will convey similarly the U.S.’s strong support for this agreement and our continued commitment to advancing that hard-won peace in Northern Ireland. 

She will also note how Northern Ireland’s unique position in the UK and EU markets can benefit all communities economically as we continue to support economic prosperity for all people in Northern Ireland. 

She will also encourage the Northern Ireland Executive leaders to continue taking steps to preserve that peace and stability in Northern Ireland for the benefit of all of its communities. 

So let me stop there, and happy to take any questions.

Q    Good evening from here, and thank you so much for your time.  Just one quick question on what you said about the Good Friday Agreement.  Is the expression of support for the Good Friday Agreement to be read as analogous to support for the Northern Ireland Protocol?  Or is it something much vaguer than that, bearing in mind that unionist leaders in Northern Ireland say that support for the agreement does not fit easily with the Northern Ireland Protocol?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I would say that President Biden has been unequivocal in his support for the Good Friday Agreement, which was a historic achievement.  And as he said on the campaign trail last year, we need to ensure that it does not become a casualty of Brexit. 

At the same time, the U.S. government has welcomed provisions in both the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, as well as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which we believe helps protect the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

And certainly, as the UK and the EU are implementing Brexit-related provisions, the administration encourages both sides to continue prioritizing political and economic stability in Northern Ireland in a way that benefits all communities.

Q    Hi, thank you so much for holding this call.  Just wanted to see if we could expect a two-by-two for the two leaders to speak after their meeting.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The current plan is to do the press avail at the top.  I assume you’re talking about the meeting between President Biden and Taoiseach Martin.  And the plan is to do the press components, including the presentation of the Shamrock bowl at the top of the meeting.  We are not planning a press avail after the meeting.

Q    Hi, it’s Suzanne Lynch here in Washington.  I have two questions.  Number one, does the Biden administration believe that a Northern Ireland envoy should be appointed? 

And secondly, from a different topic, we’ve heard a lot from the Biden administration about looking and reassessing global supply chains in light of COVID.  Ireland is a big exporter of pharmaceuticals, medical devices to the U.S., most of them U.S. companies with a big R&D and manufacturing presence in Ireland.  And how does the administration view Ireland?  Is it a competitor in terms of these products?  And is it looking to, kind of, bring back, you know, that activity back home?  Or is it more like an ally that can help with global supply chain as an alternative to other maybe less like-minded countries?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  So on your first question on the envoy: The U.S. government has long supported the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is certainly something that this administration will continue.  We have not yet made any personnel decisions, particularly as we are still getting our key officials into place at the State Department.  But certainly this administration will continue to remain very engaged in Northern Ireland and continue to strongly support political and economic stability there. 

In terms of the question on COVID, I think certainly COVID is going to be a top topic of conversation for the President and, I would assume, for the Taoiseach in the meeting tomorrow.  I think both of our countries are very committed to working together to safely restore global travel, to work within multilateral fora to prevent and respond to future outbreaks, and also to ensure a sustainable, global economic recovery.

And certainly part of that is going to be focused on the question of vaccine distribution.  The President certainly is very focused on the issue of expanding global vaccination, manufacturing, and delivering, which will be critical to end the pandemic, including within North America, Europe, and around the world.

Q    Hi, thanks for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up on a previous question.  Why is it that you’re not making accommodations for the President and the Taoiseach to take questions from the press as is traditionally done?  You knew this was going to be a virtual meeting.  Obviously, there are ways that you can bring either the expanded press pool or more in through Zoom or other virtual means to this virtual meeting. 

So why, for the second time, is the traditional two-and-two not being at least adapted for current circumstances in a way that will let both the foreign leader the President is meeting with and the President take questions from the press as is traditionally done?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I would have to refer to [senior administration official] and to my press colleagues for questions on that. 

As you note, I believe that this is the format that was followed with the Mexico meeting, but would refer you to my colleagues for the handling of the press piece.  I’m here just to talk about the policy and the format of the actual meeting, so would refer you to them on the press component.

Q    Okay.

Q    Hi, thanks for doing this call.  The European Union is unhappy with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  Does the Biden administration have a view on Johnson’s implementation treatment of that protocol at the moment?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think, as I said earlier, we have welcomed the provisions in the agreement, as well as the Northern Ireland Protocol.  We’re certainly aware that there are disagreements at the moment between the UK and the EU in the implementation of that.  We view that as a trade issue to be resolved between the UK and the EU, and hope that both sides are able to return to the table and discuss the implementation of the agreement.

The administration is interested in having strong relations with both the UK and the EU, and we hope that they’re able to find ways to work well together, particularly ways that are in the interest of political and economic stability for the people of Northern Ireland.

Q    Thank you for your earlier answer.  I just had one supplementary question to what you said.  And it would seem from what you’re saying in backing the Northern Ireland Protocol that the U.S. is very much then siding with Irish nationalism’s interpretation of whether this is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement or not.  And is that something you’re consciously doing, or is that something you’re not — that you don’t see this in quite those terms?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  The U.S. administration is not looking to take sides in this disagreement.  The Northern Ireland Protocol is something that was legally binding and that was agreed to by both sides.  And there was support for it here as a way to manage the practical challenges around the EU single market while preventing a return of a hard border.

As I said, we’re aware that there have been challenges over its implementation.  We see that as something that the UK and the EU need to resolve.  And our belief is that the path forward needs to be a pragmatic one that provides political stability and economic prosperity for all of the people in Northern Ireland.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, everyone.  And I would like to give [senior administration official] the opportunity to offer any final remarks before we conclude.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Nothing else for me.  Thanks to everybody for joining, and looking forward to a good day tomorrow.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  As a reminder, this call was attributable to a “senior administration official,” and the contents of the call will be embargoed until 5:00 a.m. tomorrow.  Thank you all so much.  Have a great day.

5:20 P.M. EDT



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