Sunday 17 December 2017

Diarmaid Ferriter: Rhetoric warmed our hearts but speech ignored our big problems

Diarmaid Ferriter

SHORTLY before Barack Obama's inauguration as President of the United States in January 2009, Bob Shrum, a long-time Democratic Party strategist, made the point that Obama "loves defining the moment and setting the scene".

A large part of his success has been built on the effectiveness with which he does this, and he certainly did it in an informal way yesterday in Moneygall. But the nature of his brief, recreational visit to Ireland was perhaps not conducive to defining and scene-setting in a way that carries significant political weight.

His speech at College Green, though powerfully and skilfully delivered, was disappointing: a patchy history lecture filled with cliche about the fighting, resilient Irish, the "Irish sweat that built our great cities", winter turning to spring, "a little country that inspires the biggest things"; a people who "never stop imagining a brighter future". The tribute to the late Garret FitzGerald was a nice addition, but overall, the speech was laboured and deliberately and conveniently focused on the past and not the present.

Unlike the visits of Bill Clinton, which were built around the resolution of the Northern Ireland problem and which could be rhetorically framed in the context of a genuine breakthrough, or the visit of John F Kennedy in 1963 which sought to celebrate the "the achievement of nationhood", Obama's trip was always going to be celebratory but not going to carry the same sense that cometh the Irish hour, cometh the American president.

It was not an official state visit and is a small part of a week-long European tour. For Obama, his sojourn in Ireland was the fun bit; just as it was for Kennedy in 1963. As pointed out by Ryan Tubridy in his recent book on JFK's visit in 1963, there were limitations to his visit, with Tubridy concluding that politically, there was "little real substance to the visit". Is it fair to reach the same conclusion about Obama's visit? Was it more about symbol and emotion than substance?

There was genuine delight in Ireland when Obama's ancestry was discovered, and although it was not taken that seriously in the US until the announcement that he would visit Ireland, it is an inspiring tale of humble origins, the emigrant's journey and the "blood lineage" between Ireland and the US that Obama pointedly referred to yesterday. It places Obama in the company of so many of his fellow citizens, an estimated 40 million of whom are Irish-American. There was a genuine warmth, physical intimacy and connection in Moneygall yesterday, which probably took the US journalists by surprise; after all, Obama at home in the US does not dwell too often on his African roots and he has not visited Kenya, his father's homeland, though yesterday in College Green he weaved in the broader multiracial and cultural origins of modern America to emphatically underline his impeccable American identity.

The talk of this trip as being a vote-gathering exercise by shoring up the support of Irish-America is wide of the mark; it is something of a myth that there is a bloc of Irish-American voters that vote for presidential candidates on the basis of their ancestry. It has been suggested it will not do him any harm in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana in 2012, but it is doubtful that it will generate much in electoral terms.

Inevitably, Obama made the soothing and affirming noises -- once again, we have been told by an American president about the "extraordinary traditions of an extraordinary people"; the friendships and the bonds that are not, he said, just about "strategic interest" or foreign policy, but much more.

But it is precisely the strategic interests that are of the utmost significance in the midst of the financial crisis Ireland is enduring. Can this visit be translated into something tangible with regard to recovery? There are no shortage of images from yesterday -- the fine gulp of the pint, the handling of a hurley like someone who could use it seriously, the warmth with which he was greeted and how he responded -- that are a tourist promoter's delight.

There is no doubt that Ireland needs every ally it can get at the moment as those in the EU managing our loan terms seek to keep us afloat and crucify us at the same time.

Getting a message through that officially the US establishment shares that assessment could bolster Ireland's case for a change to the terms. But how much difference this will make is debatable; the likelihood is that the more realistic focus will remain, not on the US pressurising the EU to ease the Irish burden, but on maintaining serious American investment in Ireland. It is estimated that US firms have invested $120bn (€85bn) in Ireland since 2000, and the US, with 600 companies here, remains the largest investor in Ireland.

The country cannot afford any reduction in such investment and Obama's visit, in that sense, will be presented as a serious confidence boost; an endorsement that makes it easier to sell Ireland as still a good place to do business.

But there is another story behind the scenes, if the economist Morgan Kelly is to be believed, which reveals a different side to the Irish-American relationship. Kelly maintains the IMF had a plan to burn unguaranteed holders of Irish bonds to the tune of $30bn which was a proposal delightfully embraced by former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, only to be scuppered by US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, who believes bankers should take precedence over taxpayers. It was, according to Kelly, "an instructive, if painful lesson in the extent of US soft power and in who our friends really are".

For all the genuine warmth, excitement and polished rhetoric yesterday, it may well be that our connection with Obama will remain simply at the feelgood rhetorical level. In the absence of a genuine commitment to champion our cause at the highest political level in a way that could substantially lessen the severity of our crisis by preventing the likes of Timothy Geithner from zealously vetoing a more flexible approach to Irish debt, we cannot be optimistic of much more.

Nonetheless, it has been a good week for Ireland. The Queen Elizabeth and Obama visits have generated confidence and goodwill and, hopefully, trade and marketing opportunities. Psychologically, the warmth the visits generated and the impressive organisation behind them have got us, at least temporarily, to stop, in Brendan Gleeson's words yesterday, "looking at the ground".

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD

Irish Independent

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