Tuesday 11 December 2018

Leo meets the Donald: four major issues the Taoiseach will raise… and Trump’s likely responses

Leo Varadkar and (inset) Donald Trump
Leo Varadkar and (inset) Donald Trump

Jason O’Brien in Washington DC

THEY say diplomacy is the art of soothingly saying “Nice doggy” until you can find a rock.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar faces into arguably the biggest test to date of his diplomatic skills when he sits down on Thursday for approximately 40 minutes with US President Donald Trump.

For decades now, the bilateral meeting between the two countries around St Patrick’s Day has been afforded a special status – a seemingly-unique opportunity for Ireland Inc to present a wish-list to the most-powerful man on earth, and see if he’ll throw us a steak.

The reality, of course, is rather less utopian.

And with the chaotic nature of the Trump White House this week (and every week?), the Taoiseach knows Thursday morning will be high-priority for him but barely register on Trump’s antennae.

But Leo also knows it is still an opportunity.

These are four of the main topics he is set to bring up:

*A new role for Ireland?

In Washington this week, the Taoiseach warned that America and Europe may “drift apart” because of growing divisions on trade, tax, climate change and other areas. Brexit isn’t helping this “drift” – with Britain’s determination to leave the EU set to remove the US closest ally - but with their ‘America First’ mantra to the fore, there is little indication to date the Trump administration cares.

Trump’s recent decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from the EU looks likely to start a trade war – with Mr Varadkar arguing that US, the EU and Ireland will all lose out if protectionism becomes the new norm. It seems however, that Trump simply doesn’t trust the EU, and an escalation seems inevitable.

Mr Varadkar will try to begin to change his mindset – and put Ireland at the centre of a potential solution. “I think that Ireland can become a bridge between America and the EU, particularly with Britain not there anymore,” he said on Tuesday. “I think we can play a role in interpreting America’s position better to the EU, and the EU’s position better to America.

“I think we can play a really important role in bridging the gap that exists… really interpreting each other’s issues and concerns, and helping to ensure that positive and constructive relations are maintained and developed,” he added.

The Taoiseach will point to Ireland and America’s shared culture, a common language and similar political and legal frameworks as he attempts to impress on Trump that Ireland can play a role here. But Mr Varadkar was also quick to reiterate which team Ireland was on. “That is not to suggest for a second that we are offering ourselves up as America’s agents in the EU because that’s not what I mean,” he said. “We’re committed members of the EU.” 

Trump thumbs up?

The European Commission is expected to respond on Wednesday to the White House’s tariffs, which is likely to form part of Mr Varadkar’s presentation on Thursday. The Taoiseach will, in effect, be representing the EU on this issue, and you wouldn’t envy him. Trump’s election win and core popularity is largely based around economically isolationist policies to ‘Make America Great Again’ and bring back traditional jobs like those in the steel industry. It’s likely he’s heard all the economic arguments before – or more accurately, they were presented to him before and he ignored them.

*A new Ambassador?

The position of US ambassador to Ireland has been vacant since Kevin O’Malley – a nominee of Barack Obama – left the position in January of 2017. The Irish role has been unfilled since then, with the charge d’affaires at the US embassy, Reece Smyth, taking on the responsibilities on an interim basis. It is only one of dozens of US ambassadorial roles around the world that have yet to be filled by the Trump administration, some 14 months after he was sworn in. 

Mr Varadkar was asked this week about the possibility of a new special envoy to Northern Ireland being appointed in an attempt to end the impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney had discussed the importance of such of an appointment with secretary of state Rex Tillerson in a recent to the US three weeks ago – and the indications at that point were that an envoy would be appointed. However, Mr Tillerson was sacked by President Trump this week, and Mr Varadkar is now suggesting that it might not be necessary. 

“I think the priority for us would be having a US Ambassador appointed more so than a Northern Ireland envoy. Sinn Fein and the DUP came very close in talks to an accommodation,” he said on Tuesday. 

“While we always welcome US involvement and interest in Ireland and helping us to achieve what we want in Northern Ireland I think what would be of more value to us would be the appointment of an ambassador at this stage.”

Trump thumbs up?

There is increasing speculation that a new ambassador will be named on Thursday, or very shortly afterwards. Edward Crawford, a leading businessman from Ohio and a long-time donor to the Republican Party, has been seen as the frontrunner since Brian Burns, a friend of Mr Trump, pulled out of the running last summer. Mr Crawford’s grandparents are from Cork, and he has a strong involvement in the Irish community in Ohio. 

*The undocumented Irish

The appointment of John Deasy as the government’s special envoy to the US congress last year took many by surprise. Part of his brief was to look at the issue of the undocumented Irish in the US. He must be making good progress as he will be in the Oval Office on Thursday. 

It has long been accepted that there are approximately 50,000 Irish living illegally in the US, but Mr Deasy is likely to contend that new analysis shows the real figure to be much lower – closer to 10,000. This, the Irish side believes, gives them a little extra bargaining power, and Mr Varadkar is floating the idea of a reciprocal arrangement between the two countries.

“There isn't a solution on the table as yet but there is a real willingness I think from the US administration to perhaps come to some sort of reciprocal agreement with Ireland, recognising that the Irish who are undocumented in America are a particular group, they're relatively small number, 10 or 15 thousand people,” he said.

“They did almost all come here legally in the first place and they are people who have been contributing to the economy, paying taxes and obeying the law.”

The Irish delegation will talk to Trump about how Americans in Ireland could get “new benefits, new protections, possible pathways to citizenship for American in Ireland in return for them doing something similar for Irish undocumented here”.

Trump thumbs up?

The US President does, famously, like to deal. So there’s a chance he might bite. But, in reality, it seems a small one. A special deal for the Irish at this stage would, obviously, bring every other immigrant grouping knocking on the White House door. And he has shown little inclination to listen to them so far, and his administration has shown little empathy for the plight of the undocumented – Irish or otherwise. 

“I’m in the White House at President Trump’s invitation,” the Taoiseach said in Texas at the weekend. “I’m not going there to lecture him on American immigration policy.”

That wouldn’t play too well, granted, but a softly-softly Irish-centric approach also looks doomed to perish on this administration’s hardline stance.

*Gay rights

Apart from the Oval Office handshake, arguably the most eagerly-awaited stop on the itinerary had been the Vice President’s breakfast meeting with the Taoiseach.

Mike Pence has long been criticised for his opposition to gay rights and rumoured support of conversion therapy – a discredited practice that proponents claim can make gay people straight. (He denies he supports the therapy). Leo Varadkar – and you may just be aware of this – is gay.

This year’s breakfast meeting, however, will take place on Friday meaning that the Taoiseach is set to meet Mr Pence for the first time in the Oval Office on Thursday. And he’s already set out his stall.

“We’ve always seen America as a beacon of freedom. This is the land of the free, the home of the brave, this is where the gay rights movement began,” he told the SXSW festival in Texas last weekend.

“It’s really tough to see a country built on freedom, build on individual freedom, not being a world leader in that space anymore. I think the majority of American people would agree with what I have to say, even if the administration doesn’t.”

Elsewhere he said he would talk to Mr Pence on the subject, and he hoped that by sharing his story and the story of the success of the marriage equality referendum in Ireland he might change “hearts and minds”.

Trump thumbs up?

In the 14 months since his inauguration, the anti-LGBT actions of the Trump administration have been numerous. They include – but are not limited to – an attempt to ban transgender people from the military, a budget was proposed to cut funding for HIV and AIDS research, the LGBT community was cut from the National Survey of Older Americans and the White House didn’t mark Pride month.

Again, Mr Varadkar looks unlikely to come away with anything positive.

Online Editors

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