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Varadkar’s Washington comment should not have triggered an apology

Bill Clinton played pivotal role in Belfast Agreement but there is no point in tip-toeing around his past

Last week, Leo Varadkar was forced to do the back-step; that piece of political choreography almost as familiar as Dancing with the Stars. This time he was apologising for a remark made to a group of interns in the US. “An ill-judged, off-the-cuff remark which he regrets,” said his spokesperson in Dublin.

But just how ill-judged was it? And was the grovel really necessary?

His office in Dublin clearly thought so, rushing out the apology almost before Eastern Time could catch up with us. Thus, most people in Ireland heard the apology before they heard the reason and apparently long before anyone in the White House did. Sometimes the pre-emptive strike shoots firmly in the foot.

“He apologises for any offence caused to anyone concerned,” said the morning bulletins, adding a decided dollop of spice to the porridge. It turned out he’d gone spontaneous.


There are two schools of thought about Leo Varadkar’s off-script pronouncements. There are those who think he’s gaffe-prone and those who think he’s refreshingly honest. We can see where his office stands. Joe Biden’s office in contrast had no compunction about the US president’s remarks that he can’t be Irish because he doesn’t drink and his “relatives aren’t in jail”.

For anyone who takes their jokes seriously, there is no greater crime than deconstructing one. But sometimes it’s necessary. Addressing a group of interns from the Washington Ireland Programme, Varadkar referenced his time as an intern in Congress during the last year of the Clinton presidency, “when parents might have had cause for concern about what happened to interns”. He was clearly referring to Monica Lewinsky.

That remark is not a joke – it’s gallows humour, often a searing form of truth telling. Any parent of a J1 student at that time can attest that it was certainly less worrying to have their offspring clean toilets in a piano bar than carry files in the White House.

Leo’s line was funny because it’s true. His problem, the perennial one, was timing. Not his delivery timing – the line certainly “landed”. Nor even because he spoke just hours after sharing a panel with Hillary Clinton. But rather because we have entered the ante-chamber of the Belfast Agreement commemorations. There is the strong sense in which this St Patrick’s season was a dress rehearsal for that commemoration.

Like 25 years ago, a febrile nationalism is the order of the day and the modus operandi is hyper-sensitivity to any jarring note. And that apparently means imposing a collective amnesia around the failings and foibles of the main participants (no such hyper-sensitivity, apparently, applies to Bertie Ahern, whose money misdemeanours were excavated and covered in contumely in recent weeks).

Bill Clinton had a pivotal role in the Belfast Agreement. But that cannot erase the fact that his presidency is defined by a litany of women’s names – Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky. He hurt all of them.

Tip-toeing around his past does him – and us – no service. If our past is the only thing we possess with certainty, it makes sense to own it. That’s up to Bill Clinton, who has acknowledged some form of sex addiction. But it’s certainly not up to official Ireland to airbrush it away.

In so doing, we sanction that most gross political convention: that the interests of women must be suborned to the cause of the great man saving the world.

And furthermore, we also airbrush the incredible achievement of Monica Lewinsky, who transcended misuse, abuse and betrayal – not to mention subsequent years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming – to become a powerful advocate against bullying.

But St Patrick’s week in Washington seems to bring about a collective regression, a green metamorphosis, where every morning is “top of the morning” and a comfortable southern-Irish bourgeoisie sentimentalises the suffering of emigrants. The panoply of the upcoming Belfast Agreement commemoration clothed the week, but also exposed a gaping hole. The faces of unionists Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie sometimes seemed the loneliest in the crowd.

Even Mary Robinson, at the Georgetown University panel on women and the peace process, got sentimental about government displeasure at her visits to republican west Belfast and the stratagems involved in shaking Gerry Adams’s hand “in a corridor” away from the cameras. It was left to Liz O’Donnell to acknowledge that there was another party to the peace process, one who arguably took the greatest risk for peace, without whom there would have been no Belfast Agreement.

“We had to mind David Trimble,” she said. “He was on his own, he was exposed.” That “minding” – it is generally acknowledged – was done by Bertie Ahern, who did what peace protagonists do: he stood in the shoes of the “other”.

That Varadkar now does the same is a measure of his development as a statesman.

Varadkar’s outstanding achievement in Washington was to keep his head when all around were losing theirs. Ignoring the chivvying of Senator Chuck Schumer, one of Washington’s most powerful speakers, he refused to put pressure on Donaldson to accept the Windsor Framework, insisting on the importance of “listening to the DUP. That we hear their concerns. They are the largest unionist party and that matters.”

In Washington last week, that was not what many wanted to hear. But it’s what many needed to hear. Perhaps it’s time that we allow Leo to own his honesty – even if it’s uncomfortable at times. And time that we owned it too.