Tuesday 11 December 2018

Philip Ryan: Leo learns what goes on tour doesn't necessarily stay on tour

Trump and Varadkar in the Oval Office
Trump and Varadkar in the Oval Office
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Everyone lets their hair down when they go on holidays.

The stresses of work are put to the back of your mind while you relax in anonymity in your destination of choice. You eat things you wouldn't eat in Ireland, wear clothes you wouldn't dare walk the streets in at home and make friends with people you wouldn't generally get a chance to meet.

But something really bizarre happens to Irish politicians when they go abroad, and especially when they visit the United States of America. They become different people. They are barely recognisable to the politicians we see pontificating in the Dáil. Politicians who speak to each other with venom in the Dáil put on a unified front when the Yanks are around.

Take Sinn Féin. The republican party has a deep-seated hatred for all things Fine Gael, and no one more encapsulates the Blueshirts than Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Yet on Tuesday evening in Washington DC, Sinn Féin's top brass rose to their feet and applauded loudly during a standing ovation for Mr Varadkar following a speech he delivered marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, Northern leader Michelle O'Neill and even former president Gerry Adams, who was sharing a stage with Mr Varadkar, all stood and clapped with enthusiasm for the Taoiseach at the event in the Library of Congress. Not a bother on them. Clapping away like he was one of their own.

In his speech, Mr Varadkar backed Sinn Féin calls for marriage equality rights and a language act in the North but said he regretted that the Irish language was being politicised during negotiations aimed at restoring the Northern Ireland institutions. He also told unionists there was no hidden agenda behind the Irish involvement in the Assembly talks.

Mr Adams used his speech to have a few pops at unionists and, as usual, did not take any responsibility for the stalemate up the North. He did not receive a standing ovation.

The rousing round of applause for Mr Varadkar from his good friends in Sinn Féin should be considered in the context of who was looking on.

Former US special envoy to Northern Ireland George Mitchell was there, as were two other architects of the Good Friday Agreement, congressman Peter King and Richard Neal. So petty political rivalries were put on hold for the evening.

However, the next day the Sinn Féin/Fine Gael collegiality reached fever pitch when Ms McDonald gave a warm welcome to the Taoiseach's announcement that he would be inviting controversial US President Donald Trump to Ireland when they met in the White House.

There are some Fine Gael backbench TDs who probably wouldn't offer such a response and even Mr Varadkar said himself a year or so ago that he didn't want Mr Trump to visit. Not to mention the fact that the Sinn Féin president was not sent an invite for this year's annual St Patrick's Day ceremony in Trump's White House. Nonetheless, there she was, throwing her full support behind the Taoiseach's decision to extend an invite to Mr Trump.

The Taoiseach is another story all together. Mr Varadkar prides himself on his finely tuned media image. Things aren't left to chance with the Taoiseach. His remarks are always well-thought through and prepared meticulously in advance.

But there he was on Capitol Hill in front of all the US politicians you see on the telly talking about calling Clare County Council about plans to build a wind farm near Mr Trump's golf course in Doonbeg.

In the White House, the Taoiseach reminded Mr Trump about the time the then-businessman called his office while he was minister for transport, sport and tourism seeking assistance on stopping a wind farm being built near the luxury golf resort.

The Taoiseach's advisers say this was an attempt to connect with Mr Trump, who has a notoriously short attention span. They wanted to talk Trump's language and bolster the Taoiseach's credentials as a deal-maker.

During the call four years ago, Mr Trump, who is not a big fan of renewable energies it's fair to say, said the wind farm would be a blight on the landscape near his course and hotel. Mr Trump referenced the phone call in his speech on Capitol but Mr Varadkar decided to give the gory details for a few laughs and approving looks from the US dignitaries.

Meanwhile, the Irish press pack gasped. Did he forget we were there? Was this supposed to be a joke or was he just showing off in front of his new American friends? Who knows.

But one thing you can be sure of is that the pally-pally act between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael will be well and truly dropped when the Taoiseach comes home to face questions on all this hot air about wind farms.

Irish Independent

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