Mary Lou McDonald on US trip: ‘How on earth could I justify not coming?’

Mary Lou McDonald has defended her decision to go to the US for St Patrick’s Day despite calls for politicians to boycott events this year.

The Sinn Fein leader said she couldn’t refuse the “unparalleled access” that Washington DC offers this week.

She made the comments in the face of a push for politicians to snub meetings with senior US figures in a show of Irish opposition to the growing number of deaths and injuries in Gaza.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald speaking to the media at the Ireland Funds 32nd National Gala during the Taoiseach’s visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day (Niall Carson/PA)

The SDLP said it has not sent any party representatives to the US this year due to the conflict in Gaza.

But Ms McDonald said it was her “responsibility and duty” to speak to anyone she can “in a bid to stop” the spiralling death toll during an interview on the Sky News programme Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips.

Asked whether she should have boycotted the White House reception this year, Ms McDonald admitted that “words aren’t enough” but added “I’m not talking about words”.

“I’m talking about concrete action. We need a ceasefire. We need to end the slaughter of women and children in Gaza. 30,000 deaths now.”

She continued: “So the question isn’t ‘why did you come?’ The question has to be ‘how could you possibly stay away?’

“In a way, we have a unique position as Irish political leaders in that we have a very strong, relationship with the United States, very strong, unparalleled access in a week like this.

“And we also have a very strong relationship with the Palestinian struggle and a strong commitment to freedom for Palestine and self-determination, an end to the occupation.

“How on earth could I possibly justify not coming and not pressing that case in the strongest possible terms?”

She said that there was an “unanswerable need” for a ceasefire and for the US to lead on that amid “the ongoing vicious, criminal bombardment of Gaza”.

“We’ve had very frank conversations with individual members on the Hill, with the administration itself and our message has been very clear: we come here as friends, as people who have had the benefit of great support from the United States for our own peace process, and we acknowledge that, but in respect of Palestine they have got it dangerously badly wrong and the ceasefire now has to be the absolute priority for everybody concerned.”

Irish politicians have emphasised the need for dialogue as part of efforts to ensure a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stating “it’s not our policy to boycott, it’s our policy to engage”.

Irish artists including Soda Blonde, Mick Flannery and Kneecap withdrew from the South by Southwest arts festival in Texas this week over opposition to the US Army being a sponsor.

Protests have been held in Dublin and Belfast this week, to coincide with the high-profile engagements in Washington DC, urging the US to end support for Israel’s military offensive in the Palestinian enclave.