Wednesday 11 December 2019

We're in a precarious position, so Enda's meeting with Donald will take chutzpah and courage

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will meet US President Donald Trump for St Patrick’s Day. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Taoiseach Enda Kenny will meet US President Donald Trump for St Patrick’s Day. Photo: Photocall Ireland

Mandy Johnston

Having finally calmed down after the histrionics surrounding attendance numbers at his master's inauguration, this week Sean Spicer, US President Donald Trump's press secretary, had more happy tidings to bestow.

Scary Spice revealed with glee to a rather underwhelmed White House press corps that Mr Trump would make good on his promise to invite Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the Oval Office for St Patrick's Day. Yippee, Enda shall go to the ball!

The significant gesture may not have exactly set pulses racing in Washington - but it will have resulted in a collective sigh of relief in Merrion Street. This year, the invite is tinged with relief and slight trepidation. It is like receiving the annual invitation to a family Christmas dinner - you don't necessarily want to go for fear of a barney, but you would be desperately embarrassed and deeply insulted if you weren't asked to attend.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office when An Taoiseach Enda Kenny is received by the US President Donald J Trump. There is a distinct sense of foreboding that 'kicking it' with The Donald will not be the usual run-of-the-mill St Patrick's Day diplomatic mission that successive taoisigh have come to know and love.

Having attended the meeting as part of the Irish delegation on several such visits, I can attest that beyond the 'token bowl of shimmering shamrock in glistening crystal' affair, there is quite a lot of serious business conducted at the meeting itself, in normal circumstances, at least.

Sadly, 'normal' appears to have left the building. Who knows what to expect now from Ireland's first audience with this song-and-dance showman who has shattered all known political norms.

In the weeks ahead, diplomats will work assiduously behind the scenes to negotiate an agreed agenda in advance of the meeting - we say nice things about America and the sentiment is reciprocated. Although much of the meeting is choreographed in advance, subject matters can provoke American sensitivities. As far as sensitivity goes, at times this president has appeared more petulant and precious than an over-indulged prom queen.

On this occasion, our Taoiseach must raise several complex matters on Ireland's behalf to a man whose gargantuan narcissism makes him almost mesmerising.

As the European project disintegrates before our eyes, Ireland finds itself caught in a diplomatic Bermuda Triangle of sorts; an international political power vortex which straddles the US, the EU and the UK. The storm clouds of Brexit loom large over everything we do, both domestically and internationally.

To compound matters further, the Government has the added drama of a desperately delicate political peace process in Northern Ireland thrown in for good measure.

In that respect, historically we have always depended on American administrations to intervene to act as a sensible, honest broker. Following yesterday's love-fest between Mr Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May, it is not difficult to predict where Mr Trump's allegiances will lie in the future.

Our list of issues is long and varied - torture; waterboarding; bilateral tax arrangements; the Apple decision; Brexit; Northern Ireland; repatriation of multinationals; foreign direct investment to Ireland; Shannon Airport stopovers; undocumented Irish; human-rights issues, to name a few. And finally, that embarrassing moment when Mr Kenny might have to tell Mr Trump: "Oh, I am terribly sorry that I called you a racist before you were elected, Mr President, do forgive me".

Most pressingly, from the Irish-American perspective, there must be an attempt to receive some clarity around the issue of the undocumented Irish who are living and working in the United States.

For now, the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform does not believe that the undocumented Irish in America need to feel unduly anxious, as it believes that Mr Trump is simply going to target "criminal aliens". Understandably, the issue remains of enormous concern to the 50,000 Irish people who live in the US and who want to do so with clarity, dignity and openness.

An executive order was signed this week that will set the wheels in motion to strip federal grant money from sanctuary cities that harbour illegal immigrants in the US.

Commenting on this issue of the undocumented Irish in the Dáil in 2008, Mr Kenny, who was then leader of the Opposition, said: "I would like to see the taoiseach make this an international priority for his term of office."

It's not something that Enda Kenny has managed himself during his tenure in office so far. But if we have learned anything from Mr Trump's first week in office, it is this: he doesn't care about rules and he does what he says he will do. So why not go for broke?

Perhaps a special dispensation for the Irish is exactly what the Taoiseach should aim for on this occasion. If no one else is playing by the rules any more, why should we?

In a wider context, Mr Trump has inherited a government on a permanent wartime footing, actively fighting in six countries - Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there may be unpalatable messages that need to be delivered because the democratic consensus demands it.

The dilemma of what to prioritise during the unique and special access that the Irish Government is afforded to the US government on St Patrick's Day has sometimes been a vexed question. Which should come first, Ireland's responsibility to Irish people or our responsibility as a government within the European Union?

The lack of support Ireland has received of late from the EU perhaps makes it is easy for us to dismiss the European project as a collection of overzealous, faceless bureaucrats intent on mindless regulation and protectionism. The reality, though, is that as an international project, when working well it delivered European monetary unanimity and trade, which confounded many sceptics. In addition, it afforded hindrance-free travel from one end of the continent to the other, with no border controls inside of the expanding zone of states that adhere to the Schengen Agreement.

Until very recently, the geographical periphery of Europe was slowly converging around the continent's historic core of Germany, France and the Benelux countries. Now, that paradise seems lost. A renewed axis between the US and the UK threatens to force Ireland to choose the economic allure of trade with Boston and Birmingham over Berlin's principles of project Europe.

With Mrs May building new partnerships and Mr Trump building new walls, the opportunity that Ireland has during this unique meeting will require a leader with political dexterity, chutzpah, bravery and confidence - someone with a self-regard who might match The Donald's enormous ego.

Should Mr Kenny get sidetracked, we could always ask Leo Varadkar as a sub.

Mr Trump might just love him! Bigly.

Irish Independent

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