Monday 16 September 2019

Kenny's 'brave lecture' to Trump wasn't brave, or even a lecture

The global media reflected deeply on the Taoiseach's words - and reported on what he didn't say
Flattery: Enda Kenny spoke of Donald Trump's win Photo: Gerry Mooney
Flattery: Enda Kenny spoke of Donald Trump's win Photo: Gerry Mooney
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Did the Irish media keep people ignorant of a brave lecture on immigration that Enda Kenny delivered to Donald Trump in Washington?

Sarah Carey, in this newspaper, said we "censored" the news, because it was something we didn't want to hear.

Stephen Collins, in The Irish Times, believes it's part of a wider media misrepresentation of the work of mainstream politicians.

Conor Pope, in the Irish Times, believes "we were all caught slightly off guard by his [Kenny's] stirring remarks".

The legend is by now firmly established: Enda made a brave speech, using the example of St Patrick the emigrant to lecture Trump on his humanitarian obligations.

Channel 4 News posted a clip of Kenny speaking, social media took it up, millions watched it.

The "lecture" has by now become an unassailable legend. Kenny delivered, Conor Pope wrote, "a thinly veiled criticism of the administration's plans to ban immigration from certain Muslim countries and to build a wall along the Mexican border".

The international media recognised a stirring lecture; the Irish media was allegedly too cynical and biased and missed it.

Now, there are several problems with this.

Mainly, it didn't happen.

The media covering Kenny did their job; at least twice they asked awkward questions in circumstances that required some nerve. They did not report what they did not see.

Enda Kenny had a delicate job to do. His home constituency would be upset if he funked making the case for the fearful Irish illegals in the US. And it's a case worth making.

Kenny's instinct in this, and always, is strategic obsequiousness. Flatter, plead, hope to get a break from the big guys.

Action on behalf of the world's distressed immigrants is not on his agenda.

Kenny's Government drags its feet on taking in even children in dire need. In a time of horrors, it allows a system that makes immigration to this country as difficult and unpleasant as possible.

In Boston, Kenny seemed to have expected to get support for his "the Irish are different" message, seeking special treatment for Irish illegals.

Boston mayor Marty Walsh wasn't buying. Despite his Irish background, Walsh made it clear that he believes in principles that apply to all immigrants, not favours for the Irish. Not just because it's right, but because solidarity has the best chance of working.

Those who believe Kenny "lectured" Trump can't agree on where and when it happened.

In Washington that Thursday, Kenny made two speeches.

Speech A: he spoke more or less off the cuff at a Friends of Ireland lunch on Capitol Hill, a relaxed, informal affair.

Speech B: he spoke during the shamrock ritual that evening at the White House, using a speech prepared at least a week earlier.

In Speech A he congratulated Trump on his victory. "You beat them all," he exulted, puckish and ingratiating, amid much laughter and loud applause.

He spoke of golf in Ireland: "You have to roll the wrist at the top to get that shot straight."

He said he knew Trump was "reflecting" on immigration (perhaps this was a brave coded reference to banning Muslims). He explained that what he was saying about Irish illegals he had said to "your predecessor on a number of occasions. We would like this to be sorted".

Kenny pointed out he wasn't talking about "open immigration" but "the people who are [already] here". And not a hint about Muslims or Mexicans.

He spoke about how immigrants want to "make America great". He did his pixie crouch and pointed: "Heard it before? Heard that before?"

St Patrick wasn't mentioned. Nor the "teeming shore".

Speech B, that evening, included much about the tribulations of 19th century Irish immigrants, and how America saved them. Kenny spoke of St Patrick, he used the line engraved inside the Statue of Liberty, about the "wretched refuse on the teeming shore", and he made an absurd claim. The Irish emigrants, fleeing hunger and colonial despotism, seeking a new life for their children, "asked not what America could do for us but what we could do for America".

Really? Desperate people, thinking only of America's needs?

The Irish, you see, are different. Kenny played into the greedy immigrant stereotype beloved of Trump. He said: "We want to give and not to take."

He flattered Trump - his election meant "a new era in our relationship" - and again he congratulated him on winning. So far, job done. Host flattered, plea made, special case advocated.

Then, The New York Times wrote about Speech A.

It saw this bit of lunchtime joshing as a "lecture" on "the virtues of America's immigrant legacy", entirely missing the cavorting leprechaun element.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 put a video excerpt from Speech B online - the one with the "St Patrick was an emigrant" line.

Having been assured by The New York Times that Kenny gave a brave "lecture" (Speech A), people watched a different speech online (Speech B) and still saw the bravery, as Kenny spoke of the "unique relationship" we have with the US - carefully differentiating us from the Muslims and Mexicans.

Having been assured that this was bravery, people perhaps watched and interpreted what they saw in that light.

In writing about how impressed they were by Kenny's words, Sarah Carey and Conor Pope described Speech B.

Stephen Collins, on the other hand, was stirred by Speech A.

There was nothing about humanitarian behaviour in either speech.

The claim seems to be that there's a "subtext" in one or other of the speeches that says more than it appears to.

God bless your eyesight.

Liberal shock and fear at the rise of Trump has led to a desperate need to see signs of "resistance". Any setback for Trump, no matter how temporary, is seen as a catastrophe for his administration. Any evidence of defiance, even where only special pleading exists, is held up as evidence of a fightback.

Associated Press reported the matter accurately: Kenny made a plea on behalf of Irish illegals in the US.

Millions, it seems, now believe otherwise.

But there was no humanitarian stand; there was no media attempt to hide Kenny's bravery. There was none to hide.

A remarkable little episode.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss