Thursday 21 February 2019

Trump meeting offers Kenny a chance to defend EU and 'make Enda great again'

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: PA
Jason O'Brien

Jason O'Brien

As the hysteria surrounding the Cheltenham Festival edges ever higher, those studying the Taoiseach's form in Washington might consider a telling exchange between champion jockey AP McCoy and his wife Chanelle, captured in the documentary 'Being AP'.

An injured AP has agreed to take a sun holiday for a week to allow his shoulder time to recover, but he is a very reluctant traveller, and not, in fact, one bit agreeable.

"It's not all about you, you know," his exasperated wife tells him at one point.

"Since when?" AP mutters in reply.

Today, Enda Kenny will tuck a bowl of shamrock under his arm and head along to the White House for a much-anticipated (in Ireland anyway) meeting with the US president.

The list of important 'Ireland' topics to potentially address with Donald Trump is lengthy, and includes the fate of the 50,000 'undocumented' Irish, foreign direct investment, corporation tax rates, Brexit, and Europe.

And we've long been told, often in hushed tones, the 'Shamrock exchange' is far more than a photo opportunity, with the access it has provided to US presidents and their administrations both valuable and helpful, making Ireland the envy of many countries.

But, and you may have heard this, there's a new sheriff in town. And if Mr Trump has any interest in helping to make Ireland great again, he's done a fine job in concealing it to date.

In fact, with the White House expected to be an altogether colder, more-foreboding prospect for the Irish than St Patrick's Day during the Obama or Clinton years, we will follow today's events with a wary fascination: intrigued, a tad apprehensive, but ultimately expecting little or nothing to come of it. Much like the way we follow Mr Trump on Twitter.

Many commentators maintain Mr Kenny is in a no-win situation. There's the obvious difficulty of advancing the Irish agenda in the face of Mr Trump's strident views and long-stated aims in many of the areas of conflict, the dangers of grandstanding against a much more powerful - and unpredictable - host who knows he already has the support of much of the Irish vote here, and the pressure to acknowledge some of the US president's more-controversial views while close enough to see that famous hairline.

But it is more likely Mr Kenny - who has overcome bigger hurdles than Storm Stella in recent weeks to keep the appointment - will see it as a no-lose scenario.

Today, on the world stage (to some degree), he'll be the latest politician faced with the seemingly impossible: to point out Mr Trump's failings without angering him, perhaps, or to change Mr Trump's mind on immigration reform on the very day a new travel ban comes in. Today, he'll be the centre of attention, one world leader engaging with the leader of the free world. Make Enda great again, anyone?

It's certainly a long way from his humiliating "mea culpa" a few weeks back, when the latest controversy in the Garda whistleblower affair seemed to ensure his career was destined for the knacker's yard, and at an uncomfortably fast clip. But, and without flogging an analogy to death, Mr Kenny has really always been a stayer and he's managed to hang in for one final lap.

This week the Taoiseach, who has long been seen as a better leader when out of the country than at home, is far from that beleaguered figure struggling and misremembering in the Dáil. Now he's enthusiastic, energised - walking around a freezing DC without a jacket, the 'hail-fellow, well-met' bonhomie to the fore - and determined as the finishing post rapidly approaches.

Because, like AP, Mr Kenny has agreed to take a 'holiday' in a few weeks. He is also a somewhat reluctant 'traveller', aware he has little choice in the matter.

And so, even though he would never be as unguarded as AP, today is largely all about Enda, and putting some spit and polish on his 'legacy'.

Of course, it would be foolish to think he will secure anything tangible from Mr Trump today, other than an attempt at a domineering handshake. And Mr Kenny is no fool.

"When it comes to immigration, he has a minimal chance of moving Trump or making an impact," Tom Wright, of the DC-based public policy organisation the Brookings Institution, said.

But the opportunity to hold court as a European statesman is an available, and principled, one. That will surely appeal. That will surely mean something to Mr Kenny.

"Mr Trump is the first American president to have a hostile attitude toward the European Union," Mr Wright pointed out. "If the Trump administration tries to break up the EU, as many experts fear, the consequences could be catastrophic for Ireland and America," he said. "Enda Kenny's top priority must be to convince Trump he is wrong on Europe.

"Mr Trump dislikes Mrs Merkel, France is in the middle of an election, and Britain is distracted by Brexit. By process of elimination, Mr Kenny is the best placed leader in the EU to make this case.This is the most important issue facing Ireland - the future of Europe."

Mr Kenny has been making similar noises here about how he intends to explain the European Union's "full story" to Mr Trump during their meeting. The scene is set, and a lot of it is optics.

It is Mr Kenny's sixth visit to the White House as Taoiseach. It will also be his last. It is likely going to be his most difficult. He's going to make the most of it.

Irish Independent

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