News Comment

Saturday 1 October 2016

Stephen Rae: What power brokers really do in the US on St Patrick's Day

Politics were set aside for a celebration of our relationship with the US, writes Stephen Rae in Washington

Stephen Rae

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

At the American Ireland Fund Arts and Humanities Award were John Fitzpatrick, Chairman of The American Ireland Fund, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Stacy Fuson and Kieran McLoughlin, President and CEO of the Worldwide Funds
At the American Ireland Fund Arts and Humanities Award were John Fitzpatrick, Chairman of The American Ireland Fund, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Stacy Fuson and Kieran McLoughlin, President and CEO of the Worldwide Funds
Michael Flatley, recipient of The American Ireland Fund Arts & Humanities Award

The Taoiseach may have had to cut short the traditional St Patrick's visit to the United States but that didn't lessen the impact the Irish had here last week.

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The uncertainty at home barely got a mention and the only election people were talking about was the likely contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in November.

To American eyes, the Irish had come united, with any differences between political parties - North and South - invisible to the casual observer.

In fact, to Irish eyes, it was a very strange situation. Here were Sinn Fein leaders applauding the caretaker Taoiseach and in turn Mr Kenny name-checked the likes of Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald in his speeches.

Elsewhere, unionist and republican leaders rubbed shoulders and joked with each other at social events, something their constituents would hardly believe.

To get a government in place, you'd begin to think we should move the whole political apparatus from Ireland to the US for a week.

At the same time that the political establishment were talking to each other and their American counterparts, the Irish private and public sectors had descended on Washington DC and New York City in their droves.

The big universities were all in town hammering out deals, along with many of our top corporations. Equally, organisations such as the gardai and the PSNI were meeting their US colleagues to discuss areas of common interest.

The only visible sign that we hadn't a government was the widespread confusion over the guest lists at the White House, witnessed in part by Gerry Adams's walkout after being held up by Secret Service security for 90 minutes.

So while the Taoiseach had flown back, giants of the US political establishment, such as Speaker Paul Ryan, former speaker John Boehner, Senator Tim Kaine and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, were lauding the Irish success story and the impact of the Irish on America.

One significant moment was at the American Ireland Fund gala dinner when John Boehner, who has a German heritage, remarked that the US would only be half as successful as it is now without the contribution of the Irish.

The main talking point back home was around Enda Kenny's "bejaysus" moment.

It came at a reception on Tuesday evening, given by the Irish ambassador in the upmarket Willard Hotel, after a long day where the Taoiseach had attended several meetings and dined with, variously, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker Paul Ryan in the US Naval Observatory, the White House and Congress.

Mr Kenny was in jocular form and in the mode he uses in front of American audiences. It is when he is wont to end a speech with "God bless you all", which goes down well in the US but not as smoothly at home.

He was describing to the largely business and diplomatic gathering how a limo driver had asked him how was his day. Mr Kenny listed off all the powerful dignitaries he had met for breakfast, lunch and receptions and remarked it hadn't been a bad day at all. "Beyasus, I wish I didn't have to go back and face what I have to face but c'est la vie," he told the 600-strong reception. It drew a strong laugh and in the context of the mood, the event and the big decisions to be faced at home, it was a lighthearted remark.

It was an assured performance in many ways and a side to him that we rarely saw in a faltering General Election showing.

He would later spend more than an hour pressing the flesh in the vast crowd and posing for photos with the Irish-American audience before flying back to Dublin that evening.

What is clear is that the Northern Ireland presence for the St Patrick's festivities is far greater than from the Republic.

First Minister Arlene Foster was over, along with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Nigel Dodds of the DUP, Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton.

Sinn Fein had three representatives in the US while uncertainty reigned at home, but, for example, there was no one from Fianna Fail. You could only assume that the other Opposition parties were missing a major opportunity for networking and influence on one of the biggest stages.

Outside of the White House and Capitol Hill, the other main centre of gravitation for the week was the luxury DuPont Circle Hotel, owned by Irish group, the Doyle Collection, where many of the US and Irish delegations were staying.

The power of Irish America was fully on display on Wednesday evening at the 24th American Ireland Fund National Gala at the enormous National Building Museum. The black-tie dinner was attended by 850 guests, including 20 members of Congress, and generated $1m for philantrophic projects in Ireland.

The significance of the event is seen by the stature of the attendees - Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan, who spoke eloquently at the event, is being tipped as a possible compromise presidential candidate for the Republicans instead of Donald Trump.

Being honoured that night was Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who is a likely vice-presidential candidate in the Hillary Clinton campaign. Kaine gave a moving talk about discovering his Co Longford roots.

Former Republican Speaker in Congress John Boehner, like Kaine, received a Leadership Award from the Ireland Fund. Introducing Mr Boehner, Paul Ryan told the audience: "I have known this man for 25 years but only in the last four months have I really come to appreciate who this man is" - acknowledging the difficulties in leading a divided Republican Party.

Mr Boehner took to the stage and joked: "What the hell am I doing here?" referencing his German background. He then spoke at length of his relationship with Ireland and frequent visits to Dublin and our golf courses. He also mentioned how every time he would meet the Taoiseach, Mr Kenny would always lobby for the undocumented Irish in the US.

"Every year for five years, the Taoiseach would say, 'John, John, John, how's immigration reform going?'" he recalled in a reasonable effort at mimicking the Taoiseach's accent.

Referring to the widely reported negotiations to get Paul Ryan to replace him as Speaker, Mr Boehner confirmed what Ryan had said earlier, that he had recruited Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to convince the younger man to take the job. Boehner said he used the Cardinal and old-fashioned Irish Catholic guilt to persuade the Wisconsin congressman to go for the most powerful position in Congress.

After some witty, sharp and pretty concise speeches by the politicians present, something of a sour note came as the fourth awardee, Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Liuna union, took to the stage. He went on a 20-minute lecture, which was at times excruciating, on Irish history. It came straight from the An Phoblacht guide to 1916 and was completely at odds at an event at which big political statements are seen as out of bounds.

Only some quick thinking and rapid-fire witticisms from Ireland Fund CEO Kieran McLoughlin returned the vibrant atmosphere to the cavernous room.

At the end of the evening, when Michael Flatley stood before the great and the good of Irish America, he cut a very different figure.

Gone was the brashness and overarching ambition we all recognised in The Lord of the Dance. Here was a humble Flatley, speaking of his broken body and signalling the end of his professional dance career on Thursday night in Las Vegas.

"It's been tough. I like to think the good times have outweighed the bad times but sometimes I wonder," he said.

Flatley outlined the litany of injuries to his body, from a torn calf to ruptured achilles tendons to broken bones. "Other than that, it's been great," he said, before treating the crowd to a display of his skills as an accomplished flautist. The showbusiness giant was being honoured with the Art and Humanities Award.

If Flatley was speaking of the bruising he has taken in his 20-year career, he may as well have been reflecting on how caretaker Taoiseach Enda Kenny was feeling back home after his cut-short visit to the US capital.

Sunday Independent

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