Tuesday 20 August 2019

Ciara Kelly: Flags and forelocks for a guest who deserved some respect

Trump and wife Melania head for Air Force One to depart Shannon. Photo: PA (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
Trump and wife Melania head for Air Force One to depart Shannon. Photo: PA (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Ciara Kelly

Did you like the dancing at the crossroads in Doonbeg? The American flags flying, the red, white and blue bunting? The Trump boys pulling pints and people excitedly talking about how they'd been stood a drink? Despite what some commentators have said, there was definitely more than a little tugging of forelocks in Co Clare this week. There was even the odd literal doffing of caps.

And were you appalled - or did you like seeing people out set dancing? Were you even a bit surprised to see the welcome rolled out for Trump, one of the most unpopular of American presidents?

Well, if you were, perhaps you don't live in rural Ireland. Doonbeg is tiny. A few hundred people live there and - like much of the country - when children grow up, there's nothing for them. They move away. To Limerick if their family is lucky - it's not too far. But increasingly all roads lead to Dublin, which is no closer than someone on the east coast moving to the UK. Dublin families bemoan their kids being ''priced out of their areas'' and possibly - horror of horrors - having to contemplate moving outside the pale. Rural families know nothing except their kids being forced to move miles away, their grandkids raised in a different part of the country only to be seen on a visit a few times a year. You would dance with the devil if you thought it would change that. If it would allow your kids to stay in their community. Or stop the slow death of your local town or village.

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And the truth is, whatever you think about Donald Trump, his hotel has completely changed the possibilities for people living in that part of Clare. There are more jobs now. There are opportunities. And, following this visit, there will be more tourism. Would they like it to be at the hands of a different president who they didn't have to feel defensive about being glad of? Yes, probably. But this is the way it is.

Michael D Higgins was critical of Trump's climate change policies earlier in the week, calling them regressive and pernicious. Was he right about the policies? Yes, he was. Was he right to say it? No, he wasn't. His comments were an ego-driven break with protocol that in many ways mirror the breaches of protocol that Trump himself makes on a daily basis. Like rowing into the leadership race for the Tory Party or having a spat with London Lord Mayor Sadiq Khan. These are not things an American president should do. But equally, it is not the correct behaviour of our ceremonial head of state to insult other heads of state on the eve of their arrival here.

Trump is a petty, vindictive man. Should he have decided to take exception to what President Higgins said, it would not be President Higgins that would suffer. It would more likely be the Irish undocumented in America. The families who rely on American multinationals for their employment. Or those companies here who trade with the US.

Candidates often struggle in our presidential elections to explain what it is they'll do if they win - it being a largely titular role. Well, knowing that it's important to not insult other heads of State would be a good start. The job of the Irish President is to make Ireland - not themselves - look good at all times.

The truth is, though, there was some forelock tugging this week in Clare because people there know - as they do throughout rural Ireland - that they are up against a society that is evolving to see their way of life gradually eroded. We tugged the forelock historically because it was an acknowledgement of a power imbalance. That power imbalance was what was being recognised in Doonbeg this week.

But the truth is we need to recognise it as a nation too. We will always need America more than it needs us. The US, the UK and the EU are our most important allies in every way. Souring our relationship with the US - especially at a time when the UK is sailing off into the sunset - because we don't like the current man in the White House is absolutely stupid.

It is right, and even important, that ordinary citizens and perhaps opposition politicians who don't know, and in some cases will never know, the responsibility of government, protest against Trump and his abhorrent position on immigration, climate and many other things. But those who actually represent us - our Taoiseach and our President - need to recognise the real politic here and treat the man with the respect that the office, if not him personally, deserves.

We're on the cusp of maturity as a society here. Being a colony infantilised us. Having ultra orthodox, conservative, Catholic governments for almost a century afterwards - treating us like we couldn't be trusted - did the same. We are no longer childlike; we are emerging now as a society like a teenager rebelling against our parents. Throwing off old, rigid values and being very deliberately liberal and asserting our newly found opinions in everything we do.

Protest against Trump is part of this and it's good. But don't for a moment scoff at those who don't have the options of those who live within the M50. Who don't want to raise their children like cattle for export.

Not a lot happens in a tiny town and being the centre of world attention for once is a dizzying thing. Between that and the dancing it's no wonder they were in a bit of a spin.

When I watched the people in Doonbeg I was reminded of an Ireland of old in more ways than one. I understood it and I actually quite liked seeing it. It is who we are and where we came from. And to be honest, they looked like they were having the craic. You still catch more flies with honey than vinegar.


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