FP Explainer

Why Are Irish Prime Ministers Always in Washington on St. Patrick’s Day?


Update: The tradition continued in 2011 as new Prime Minister Enda Kenny made his first official trip to Washington for St. Patrick's Day. 

On Wednesday -- St. Patrick's Day, a Catholic holiday celebrating the patron saint of Ireland -- Prime Minister Brian Cowen will not be in Dublin or Cork. Like many a taoiseach before him, Cowen will be in Washington with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden, presenting a bowl of shamrocks to the president before an event with Irish-Americans and political dignitaries. But why don't Irish prime ministers spend St. Paddy's Day at home?

It is a tradition, though not a particularly old one. Since the mid-20th century, U.S. presidents have sent warm words to Ireland on St. Patrick's Day. In 1937, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a radio broadcast from Warm Springs, Georgia, in honor of the holiday: "Good old St. Patrick, and may he ever be with us, was the epitome of unselfishness!" And in 1969, Richard Nixon welcomed the ambassador from Ireland into the White House and received the now-traditional Waterford crystal bowl filled with clover.

Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, which shares a border with the Republic of Ireland and is part of the United Kingdom. Irish leaders started reaching out to political heavyweights in the United States, continuing to send the shamrocks and also stepping up the diplomatic visits. On St. Patrick's Day, 1976, for instance, Prime Minister Liam Cosgrave addressed a joint session of Congress to push for peace before heading to the White House. Five years after that, during Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Bobby Sands' famed 66-day hunger strike, Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. president ever to visit the Irish Embassy as the guest of honor at a St. Patrick's Day lunch and a negotiator seeking peace between the warring nationalist and loyalist factions.

The taoiseach's White House visit on St. Patrick's Day became a permanent fixture during the tenure of Bill Clinton, for whom peace talks were a major foreign-policy priority. He used the glitzy events as a chance to bring both sides together: In 1995, he famously got the Irish nationalist Gerry Adams and Ulster loyalist leader Gary McMichael (whose father died at the hands of the IRA) in the same room, along with Republic of Ireland Prime Minister John Bruton. Doing so helped pave the way to the 1998 peace agreement. During Clinton's presidency as well, the term "shamrock ceremony" came into use in the United States.

Now, Irish prime ministers continue to accept the White House's St. Patrick's Day invitation because, in the words of the Irish Times, it's a rare occasion when "the leader of the most powerful nation on earth will devote much of his working day to one of the smallest countries in Europe" -- face time very few tiny countries get.

The St. Patrick's Day visits from Irish dignitaries and politicians also serve an apolitical purpose: fundraising and economic development. The Ireland Funds and other major Irish lobbying, charitable, and business organizations draw in more money and attention in the middle of March than in the rest of the year -- not just due to the Irish-themed revelry, but due to the visits from Irish political heavyweights.

Thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin and Henry Farrell of George Washington University.

Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images

FP Explainer

How Does Israel Approve New Settlement Building?

It depends.

The Israeli government announced Monday that it had authorized new construction in a West Bank settlement -- 112 apartments in the mostly Orthodox town of Beitar Illit, six miles outside Jerusalem; on Tuesday, it announced the construction of more than 1,000 new apartments in East Jerusalem. The news came despite the Israeli government agreeing to halt new construction in the territory outside of Jerusalem in November. But how do you go about getting new settlement construction approved, anyway?

It depends. Let's define settlements as Israeli communities on land acquired by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank.

Within Jerusalem -- whose city limits Israel designates as including West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, and surrounding neighborhoods -- to build or add to a residence, you need to go through the city's planning process. In the West Bank outside Jerusalem, you need to be expanding an existing settlement and need to have already started the building process. (The Israeli government says the Beitar Illit apartments had been approved before November -- therefore, the ban on new building did not apply.)

Say you want to build a block of residences in East Jerusalem. You need documents proving that you own or have rights to use the land in question, as well as construction plans that fall within detailed zoning, density, and historical regulations. With these in hand, you make an application to the Local Planning Committee, which is composed of 11 members of the City Council. The committee determines whether or not to approve your plan, with or without amendments, and legally cannot discriminate based on gender, creed, religion, or race. Citywide, the municipal committee in 2009 gave the thumbs-up to approximately 60 percent of applications and rejected around 40 percent.

The project then goes to the Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee, which is part of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior and includes government officials and public advocates. This committee also makes a ruling on the project. Then, it posts the plans, and the public can raise objections for up to 60 days -- before a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down. In the West Bank outside Jerusalem, the Ministry of Defense controls the entire building-permit process in Israeli-administered territory ("Area C"), about 72 percent of the West Bank's area. Whether through the city or military process, getting a building approved tends to take months, if not years.

The government assesses application and building fees on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the project and the size of the lot. For the construction of an average-sized home, for instance, governmental costs total around $3,000, including fees for water and sewage hookup.

Critics contend that the process discriminates against Palestinians for numerous reasons -- among them, the fact that Palestinians opt out of Jerusalem's municipal elections (and therefore aren't represented on the Local Planning Committee), residency and citizenship requirements, and the fact that many Palestinian residential buildings were not permitted when Israel annexed the land. Plus, relatively few Palestinians, critics argue, can afford application and building fees; the average income for Palestinians in the West Bank is less than $3,000 a year, and one in five is unemployed.

Thanks to Stephan Miller in the office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.