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New Northern Ireland leaders ‘the focus’ at Washington DC event

Northern Ireland is set to be the focus of a gala dinner event in Washington DC as First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly address guests.

It is the first time Northern Ireland’s leaders have officially visited the US city together ahead of St Patrick’s Day for eight years.

In 2016, then first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness met then US president Barack Obama.

The Stormont Assembly and Executive was resurrected in January following two years of instability.

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly will address The Irish Funds dinner on Wednesday night, and are set to attend the annual St Patrick’s ceremony at the White House on Sunday.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media at the Dupont Circle Hotel, Washington, DC, during his visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day (Niall Carson/PA)

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who will also address the event, said Northern Ireland will be the focus.

“The Ireland Funds will not be perhaps as well known in Ireland as it should be but it’s an organisation that is very well known in America and around the world and has raised hundreds of millions for very good causes in Ireland with a particular focus on equality and reconciliation,” the Taoiseach told media.

“Friday will be the political meetings with the president, vice-president and, speaker and congressional leaders with a particular focus on Northern Ireland.

“I know they are always very keen to know what is happening in relation to the peace process.”

He added: “I’m really glad I’m coming here with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the Executive is up and running”.

Earlier Mr Leo Varadkar has said Israel’s apparent plans for the Gaza Strip after a potential ceasefire are “entirely unacceptable”.

He said he planned to raise the issue with US President Joe Biden this week during a high-profile White House meeting to coincide with St Patrick’s Day.

The Taoiseach also said that Europe and the US would have a role to play in “building a Palestinian state” after any truce.

Joe Biden with Leo Varadkar
Joe Biden with Leo Varadkar last year (Damien Storan/PA)

Mr Varadkar and other ministers are attending events in the US around St Patrick’s Day.

He has said he will use the “very special platform” with US politicians to give the Irish people’s view that they want the killing in Gaza to stop.

Mr Varadkar said he would try to mention Irish-Palestinian man Zak Hania, who is in Rafah, whose wife has asked for his case to be raised with the US president.

He said there had been hundreds of requests for issues to be raised with Mr Biden.

“I should point out though that Irish citizens in Gaza, our main contact is with Israel and Egyptian governments, as well as the Qataris,” he replied.

Mr Varadkar said he would be “encouraging” Mr Biden to “redouble efforts” the US is making to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

“We’ll be encouraging him to redouble efforts in that regard, offering any help we can, but also really want to talk about the day after.

“I think what we’re hearing from the Israeli government in terms of what their plans are for Gaza the day after (a ceasefire) are entirely unacceptable.

“It is an occupied territory, it’s not Israel’s right to decide what happens in Gaza, it’s an occupied territory.

“America and Europe have a role to play in building a Palestinian state which I think is the only chance that we have of peace and justice.”