Sunday 19 January 2020

Dearbhail McDonald: Realpolitik excuses from St Patrick's Day Trump fan club ignore lessons from history

President Donald Trump (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
President Donald Trump (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Dearbhail McDonald

I was both honoured and conflicted when I received an invitation from US President Donald Trump to attend the annual St Patrick's Day reception at the White House.

Invitations to the White House aren't easy to come by. But I was honoured mostly because of my enduring love for the United States which took hold like a fever in my student days at Trinity College when I first began travelling to America on a J1 visa.

It is a love affair that has persisted professionally and personally over the last 20 years and one I expect to last my lifetime. But like many fellow invitees I spoke to at the White House, I was in some senses uneasy about aspects of the shamrock ceremony, notwithstanding the beauty and history of that extraordinary building on Pennsylvania Avenue and the fact that the Office of the US Presidency is bigger than its custodians.

This is because the election campaign mounted by Donald Trump and so many of the policies espoused by his administration - not to mention the controversial figures shadow directing this White House - are anathema to everything I hold dear.

I'm not alone: there was huge opposition directed in some quarters towards Taoiseach Enda Kenny for attending the ceremony and for lauding US Vice President Mike Pence at a dinner in Washington DC the night before the White House reception.

Kenny went a long way towards answering his critics when he said during his White House speech that St Patrick was, in many ways, the patron saint of immigrants. The speech subsequently went viral, with more than 30m hits online. In the room, however, Kenny's remarks - whilst firm and pointed - were delivered in a style that was not designed to actually offend his hosts or jeopardise the annual ceremony.

The annual jamboree grates with many. But there is no disputing that the White House ceremony - which caps more than a week of bilateral trade, political and other meetings across the US - is an extraordinary feat of access for Ireland Inc to successive US administrations and corporate America.

And yet at what point, in the name of commercial necessity or realpolitik do we become complicit in enabling regimes that are at odds with our proclaimed values? Does pragmatism always trump principle?

What was most fascinating to observe during the ceremony was the obsequious fawning over President Trump by many Irish and Irish American business, civic and political personnel there.

Like lovestruck teenage fans at a One Direction concert, the men - it was mostly men - clamoured over each other to shake Trump and Pence's hands. Many had been avowed supporters of the Democrats generally and the Clintons in particular. But this new found awe for Trump seemed to pass over as easy as butter on hot toast. "That's politics," remarked one. "It's just business," said another. "We have to work him," they all said in unison.

That's true, up to a point. And business, like politics and diplomacy, is an art of compromise. But history is replete with leaders who sowed dangerous legacies because they were enabled by others who did not stop them.

At what point will Ireland Inc say enough is enough?

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