Coveney 'significantly' curtails St Patrick's trip but Taoiseach still off to see Trump
Tánaiste Simon Coveney will curtail his travel plans as part of the St Patrick's Day festivities amid growing anxiety over how the UK's approach to Brexit will develop in the coming days.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will proceed with his visit to US President Donald Trump in Washington next week, but his deputy has shortened his European schedule "significantly".
Ministers will visit all 27 European Union capitals over the St Patrick's Day period as well as a selection of locations in the US, Asia, Africa and South America.
Mr Varadkar will be in the United States when the House of Commons holds a series of votes on whether to accept the existing Withdrawal Agreement, sanction a disorderly Brexit, or seek a delay.
There is a broad political consensus that he should go ahead with the annual trip, especially as many US politicians have been publicly supportive of Ireland's position on the need to prevent the return of a hard Border.
But Mr Coveney told Independent.ie's 'Floating Voter' podcast that his decision was to curtail his itinerary, which was to include France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
"While my colleagues are doing necessary work to talk about Ireland and build our brand globally and interact with our diaspora all over the world in the build up to St Patrick's Day, I'm in the Seanad.
"I've shortened my trip significantly. I'm going to Paris and Brussels on the weekend. I'm going there next Friday, Saturday and Sunday," he said.
His meetings in Paris and Brussels will be heavily focused on Brexit, with the French taking a particular interest in the possibility that the UK will seek an extension to Article 50. Mr Coveney said there was "a possibility" he would be able to fit in Berlin and The Hague at some point over the St Patrick's period - "but at the moment Brexit preparations are being prioritised over everything else".
He said it was not clear at this stage what would develop in the House of Commons next, but expressed the view that there would be "a huge effort on the EU side and UK side to try get the basis for some optimism next week as we move into Tuesday".
Ministers have been briefed to use their time abroad as a platform to underline Ireland's commitment to and membership of the European Union.
Meanwhile, speaking about his second St Patrick's Day in the White House, Mr Varadkar said Northern Ireland would be high on the agenda for his talks with Mr Trump.
He said a US envoy "to assist in the talks and the peace process would always be welcome".
The Taoiseach added that he would be raising the issue of E3 visas for Irish citizens who wanted temporary live and work status in the US.
Mr Varadkar said the president had been supportive of issuing more visas for Irish people.