Saturday 18 November 2017

There's still a green seam to be mined in White House

The Kennys and the Trumps seemed to get on fine but it pays to read between the lines, writes Kevin Doyle in New York

Sources who were inside the Oval Office for his meeting with the Taoiseach suggest Mr Trump's knowledge of Ireland doesn't stretch far beyond Doonbeg Photo: Getty
Sources who were inside the Oval Office for his meeting with the Taoiseach suggest Mr Trump's knowledge of Ireland doesn't stretch far beyond Doonbeg Photo: Getty
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

'Great people," shouted the hulking Donald Trump as he posed for photographs at the back entrance to the White House with the Kennys.

He had only met Fionnuala and Enda hours earlier for very formal discussions but the unpredictable world leader decided he liked them.

In fairness, the Taoiseach and his wife went out of their way to get on his good side. They even brought gifts for Melania and Barron.

We don't expect to see the First Lady wearing her Carrickmacross lace brooch anytime soon and what the 10-year-old who has everything will do with a WB Yeats book is unclear, but it's the thought that counts.

Trump had obviously felt the Irish visit would be a good news story, too. He set aside his diary for the entire day.

There was backslapping and paddywhackery to beat the band - but all was not necessarily as it seemed on the surface.

White House staffers enjoy St Patrick's Day but are somewhat bemused by the way in which Mr Trump embraced it.

One source suggested it was simply a case of: "Obama did St Patrick's Day so Trump wants to do it bigger."

The president had done some research though, telling the story of the low-key first Shamrock Ceremony in 1952.

On that balmy March 17, the then Irish ambassador John Joseph Hearne dropped off some shamrock at the White House and went on his way. The president, Harry Truman, wasn't even home at the time.

But sources who were inside the Oval Office for his meeting with the Taoiseach suggest Mr Trump's knowledge of Ireland doesn't stretch far beyond Doonbeg.

Mr Kenny had to give him a basic history lesson on Ireland, focusing heavily on the Northern troubles.

"Most of the meeting was spent explaining the situation in Northern Ireland. He was very interested in it and what the Border meant," the source said. Mr Kenny talked about how roads were "blown up" in the past because of customs checkpoints.

Asked whether Mr Trump had a good grasp of Ireland or Irish politics, the source replied "not really, no".

For example, the Irish Government had flagged well in advance of the meeting that they were going to raise the issue of the undocumented.

Yet Mr Trump hadn't bothered to find out how many illegal Irish are in his country. He had assumed it was much larger than the 50,000. That's less than 0.5pc of the illegal population. At the same time the Irish delegation got the sense Mr Trump is open to being convinced on immigration. "It's clear it's an area he is prioritising. There will be moves on immigration under this administration," said a source.

The interpretation taken away by Mr Kenny was that after years of presidents stalling on the issue, the incumbent will act. What he does is the question. Outside the West Wing following their meeting, the Taoiseach urged the illegal Irish who are guilty of small misdemeanours to tidy up their act. He said they should get a lawyer to help sort out parking tickets and speeding fines. The president didn't ask him to say that but it's understood Mr Kenny was "reading between lines".

Mr Trump didn't make any specific promises on immigration but sources say there "is plenty to follow up on".

There was little mention of taxation policy during the meeting, although the two men did talk about the prices being charged for medicines.

Mr Kenny told the president how Health Minister Simon Harris was working with other countries to negotiate a collective price for the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi.

And on the EU, the Taoiseach admitted that the union needed to sell its message better in the United States.

But probably a more significant take-away from Washington is VP Mike Pence's obsession with his Irishness.

Four times in 24 hours he told the story of how Richard Michael Cawley left Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, and landed at Ellis Island on April 11, 1923.

Mr Pence's immigrant grandfather became a bus driver in Chicago and married Mary Elizabeth Maloney, a teacher whose family hailed from Doonbeg. It reached the point where journalists were able to mouth the story of his mother - "83 years young, red hair, crystal blue eyes" - along with the VP.

It was cringey but exposed a part of Mr Pence that the Irish Government can leverage. His stances on LGBT rights and immigration are oblivious to most people in Ireland - and yet he wants to be one of us.

"All the I am, all that I will ever be and all the service that I will ever give is owed to my Irish heritage," he said.

The Taoiseach brought him a copy of the 1911 Census showing his grandfather could read and write at age eight. Unlike the Bord Bia hamper brought for the president, this was a personal gift proving the Government has targeted Mr Pence as the real key ally.

"He is going to become the acceptable face of the White House," said one observer.

To his credit, Mr Kenny didn't stop there though. Over recent years, Irish ministers have focused heavily on the Democrats who are now largely redundant on Capitol Hill.

The Taoiseach met former VP Joe Biden privately for an hour but obviously didn't want news of the meeting circulating around his new Republican friends so didn't alert the media.

Last Friday, Mr Kenny said his time in Washington provided a "beneficial discussion" and he intends "to follow through" on it. In the long run though, that won't be Mr Kenny's problem. He got what he needed from his swansong tour of the US.

As a subplot, it looks like it will be Michael D Higgins on the red carpet offering the 'cead mile failte'. Which will be interesting.

Sunday Independent

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