Saturday 21 September 2019

Explainer: Who is Mike Pence, what are his links to Ireland and why is he considered controversial?

US Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting with Minister of foreign affairs Simon Coveney after he arrived at Shannon airport for the start of an official visit to Ireland. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire
US Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting with Minister of foreign affairs Simon Coveney after he arrived at Shannon airport for the start of an official visit to Ireland. Photo: Jacob King/PA Wire
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

MIKE Pence and his family are visiting Ireland but who is the US Vice President, what are his links to Ireland, and why is he considered controversial by many?

Q: Who is Mike Pence?

Mike Pence (60) grew up in Indiana, the US State where he would later become governor. Raised a Catholic in an Irish-American family, he later became an evangelical, born-again Christian. He married his wife Karen in 1986 and the couple have three grown up children.

He allegedly refers to Karen – who shares his conservative views on issues like gay rights - in a rather old-fashioned manner as ‘mother’.  He reportedly told US media outlet The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, and won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.

Q: What are his connections to Ireland?

Mr Pence has roots in both Tubbercurry, Co Sligo and Doonbeg Co Clare, where coincidently US President Donald Trump owns a golf club and hotel. The vice-president’s grandfather Richard Michael Cawley – who was a member of the Irish Free State’s army emigrated to the US in 1923. Some of Mr Pence’s great grandparents emigrated to the US from Co Clare in the late 19th Century.

E PENCE VISIT MX_15.jpg
President Micheal D Higgins and Vice President Mike Pence at Áras an Uachtaráin PIC: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE

At their meeting at Mr Pence’s Washington DC residence earlier this year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he hoped the vice-president would bring his mother Nancy with him to Ireland. Nancy Pence is accompanying her son on this week’s visit. Mr Pence has previously said: “All that I am, all that I will ever be and all the service that I will ever give is owed to my Irish heritage.”

Q: Why is Mike Pence considered controversial?

Mr Pence is viewed as an ultra conservative who is strongly opposed to abortion and has resisted efforts to extend LGBT rights in the US. He was a member of the so-called Tea Party movement in the Republican Party that arose in the late noughties. Mr Pence was a Congressman at the time but was later elected governor of Indiana in 2013.

He has opposed same-sex marriage and in 2006 supported a constitutional amendment in the House of Representatives that would have defined marriage as between a man and a woman. In a speech he argued that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.”

Q: How does he get on with Leo Varadkar, one of the world’s few openly gay leaders?

Mr Pence has welcomed the Taoiseach into his home twice and the pair appear to have a respectful relationship despite their fundamental disagreement on LGBT issues. Mr Varadkar has described Mr Pence as "a real friend of Ireland" saying he's got to know him "reasonably well" in the last couple of years. The media was excluded from their 2018 meeting at the US Naval Observatory. Mr Varadkar discussed gay rights with Mr Pence privately on that occasion.

At the time Mr Pence invited the Taoiseach to bring his partner, cardiologist Matt Barrett to his home for this year’s St Patrick’s Day festivities. The press were present this year to hear Mr Varadkar deliver a carefully crafted speech. He said he was there as “leader of my country, flawed and human, but judged by my political actions and not my sexual orientation or my skin tone or my gender or religious beliefs.” He said he didn’t believe Ireland is the only country in the world where this is possible adding: “We are after all, all God’s children”. Mr Pence said the Taoiseach had offered “inspiring words”.

Their families are today attending lunch together in Farmleigh House. White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere referred to this in a Twitter post. He wrote: “For all of you who still think our VP is anti-gay, I point you to his and the second lady’s schedule… where they will join Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his partner Dr Matthew Barrett for lunch in Ireland.”

Q: What are Mr Pence and the Taoiseach going to discuss?

Mr Varadkar has said he will use his meeting with the vice-president to outline the impact of Brexit on Ireland He says he hopes that Mr Pence will bring back the message to President Donald Trump and his administration which has been supportive of Brexit.

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