Blarney and belly laughs as Enda goes on charm offensive
Published 14/03/2014 | 02:30
THE Taoiseach was impressively bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a chap who had grabbed only a few hours' sleep, having landed in Washington DC in the middle of a howling gale around 1am.
"See that big fella over there who's minding me? He's from Tipperary," he confided, pointing at a doorstep of a local cop standing at the entrance to the hotel as he bustled away to the first engagement of his six-day US visit.
Enda Kenny likes America. The can-do attitude suits his optimistic personality and informal nature. He's invariably in good form when he touches down on US soil for the annual Paddy's Day festivities at the White House – understandably so, given that no other country of Ireland's size gets an annual sit-down with the leader of the free world. As he said himself during the first speech of this trip: "Small country, big message."
He had another reason to be cheerful. Serendipitously, he had arrived in America to spread the message that his much-battered country appears to have completed that right-angled manoeuvre – turning the corner – in the same week that Ireland's bond yields hit a record all-time low of 2.9pc.
He began the day at the US Chamber of Commerce, where he addressed a roomful of business people.
His speech was upbeat, describing how 61,000 new jobs were created in Ireland last year.
The Taoiseach emphasised the close links between the US and Ireland and the importance of trade between the two countries, pointing out that both directly and indirectly exports from Irish companies sustain more than 300,000 jobs in the economy.
He was keen to broadcast that Ireland was back from the brink.
"When we came here three years ago, we were in serious difficulty. We've come a long way on to higher ground," he said. "The Irish have been nothing but practical and pragmatic. We've beaten adversity in so many ways" – before speaking about the thousands of Irish who died fighting in the Crimea and in the First World War.
"We fought the battles of so many other countries for centuries; now here's a battle for ourselves and it's one we're going to win," he concluded to applause.
But Mr Kenny also had a serious message to deliver about one particular ongoing battle. He defended Ireland's 12.5pc corporation tax rate.
"Our 12.5pc corporate tax rate has been a cornerstone of the offering of attractiveness that Ireland has. It's been the subject of some debate in the US Senate and on the Hill.
"I want to make it very clear that Ireland does not comply with any of the four criteria for tax-haven status. The OECD has been very strong on that," he said.
And naturally there was a bit of blarney. In an outrageous piece of plamas, he told the roomful of Americans that he operated an "open-door policy", adding: "If you have a proposition or a concern, I want to hear it. My number is a public number, call me any time."
Hopefully, some enthusiastic transatlantic entrepreneur will take him up on that, preferably at 4am.
Afterwards, the Taoiseach crossed the city to the sumptuous surrounds of the Willard Hotel for a business leaders' lunch.
But first, there was a moving ceremony in an adjoining room, when he presented the inaugural Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick's Day Science Medal to a man with a familiar name, Dr Garret A FitzGerald.
The Irish cardiologist, who is no relation to the late Taoiseach, was awarded the medal for his role in discoveries relating to the use of low-dose aspirin in preventing heart disease.
But it was a bitter-sweet day for the doctor, who broke down during his speech when he spoke of his wife, who is battling cancer.
At the lunch, the Taoiseach was once again spreading cheer over Ireland's prospects and assured guests that the country would work closely with the US in the negotiations over the US-EU trade pact.
And once again he mixed serious business with a few folksy stories about farmers and St Patrick and horsehairs, which raised belly-laughs around the room.
The Taoiseach knows his audience here in the States and knows he can make pronouncements on this side of the Atlantic which would simply spark a mass outbreak of eye-rolling at home.
"I'd like to thank all of you for your constancy in believing that our country will make it through the economic nightmare," he said to applause.
Then he headed off to iron his tuxedo for the gala black-tie American Ireland Fund dinner to honour Vice-President Joe Biden, before readying himself for his meeting with President Obama today.
One can only trust that the Kenny charm offensive works in the Oval Office when the small matter of Ireland's 12.5pc corporation tax rate pops up on the agenda.