Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has apologised for making an apparent joke about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, during an event in Washington on the eve of St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Varadkar’s comment on Thursday risked overshadowing his meeting with Joe Biden at the White House on Friday for the traditional handing over of a bowl of shamrock to the US president, the most important day in the Irish-American political calendar.
The taoiseach departed from a prepared script on Thursday when speaking to people involved in the Washington Ireland programme, which teaches career skills to young people. Reminiscing about his stint as a US House of Representatives intern in 2000, the last year of Clinton’s presidency, Varadkar said it was a time “when some parents would have had cause for concern about what would happen to interns in Washington”.
The comment was widely viewed as a reference to Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky while she was a White House intern in the mid-1990s. Hours earlier, Varadkar had shared a stage with Hillary Clinton at a separate event.
A spokesperson for Varadkar apologised on his behalf.
“He made an ill-judged, off-the-cuff remark which he regrets. He apologises for any offence caused to anyone concerned,” they said.
The taoiseach is to meet and share platforms with the Clintons when the couple visit Ireland next month to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. Biden also plans to visit.
Senior Democrats this week urged Democratic Unionist party (DUP) figures visiting Washington to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Windsor framework, saying it had addressed the party’s concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, expressed hope that the Stormont institutions would be swiftly revived. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said the DUP should “get to the people’s business, the business of power-sharing and self-governing”.
The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, rebuked Schumer, telling Sky: “I would urge the senator to read some history books. Maybe he’d learn a little bit more about what really happens and the reality of the situation.”
Hillary Clinton increased the pressure on the DUP when she urged assembly members who opposed the Windsor framework to resign and allow others to revive Stormont.
On Friday, Varadkar met Biden’s vice-president, Kamala Harris, at her residence in Washington. Varadkar’s apparent gaffe over Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was not mentioned but the Windsor framework was.
The agreement, the taoiseach said, “has the potential to restore very good relations between Ireland and the UK and to restore the relations and institutions of the Good Friday agreement” while opening a new chapter in EU-UK relations.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Varadkar said. “But I think with good faith on all sides, we’ll have that and the help of our … friends here in America.”
From there, the taoiseach went to the White House to meet Biden.
Before the Oval Office meeting, the president sent out a St Patrick’s Day tweet in which he proudly introduced himself as “the great-great-grandson of the Blewitts of County Mayo and the Finnegans of County Louth who boarded a coffin ship to cross the Atlantic more than 165 years ago” and as “the proud son of Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden”.
Coffin ships were vessels that took Irish immigrants to America during the Great Famine of the 1840s, so called, in the words of the writer Philip Hoare, “because so many of their human cargo died of disease or malnutrition en route, or shortly after arrival”.
In front of the press on Friday, Biden referred to a recent meeting in San Diego with Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, saying: “I very much, very strongly supported the Windsor framework, which I know you do too.”
Varadkar thanked Biden “for your help and support and understanding for our position on Brexit in recent years”, which he said “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.”