Sunday 20 January 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: Taoiseach's job on St Patrick's Day is to serve Ireland Inc

Leo Varadkar made some gaffes in Washington, but it was still the right call to take a softer approach to President Trump, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

White House welcome: Leo Varadkar with President Trump and his wife Melania. The Taoiseach was in a tricky position but he made the right call by prioritising trade talks. Photo: AP
White House welcome: Leo Varadkar with President Trump and his wife Melania. The Taoiseach was in a tricky position but he made the right call by prioritising trade talks. Photo: AP

Eilis O'Hanlon

Donald Trump is president of the United States. That might seem an obvious remark, but it's becoming increasingly bizarre how hard that simple fact seems to be for some people to accept. In Ireland, it manifested itself this week in a passionate conviction that the Taoiseach should have snubbed the annual St Patrick's Day visit to the White House as a message of Irish disapproval to the property developer and former reality TV star, for his alleged racism/misogyny/climate change denial (delete as appropriate).

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger was banging that drum on last Thursday morning's Today With Sean O'Rourke. She was ably rebutted by Seth Barrett Tillman, the US-born law lecturer from Maynooth, who pointed out the breathtaking arrogance of believing that one should go to a friendly, democratic country and start telling its people how they should live and think.

That certainly didn't go down too well when former UKIP leader Nigel Farage came to Dublin recently to address a small conference in favour of Ireland leaving the EU. One would have imagined from some of the reaction that it was the Elizabethan conquest all over again, as Nigel was ordered in no uncertain terms to go back to where he came from and never darken our door again.

Now some Irish observers appear to want to emulate Farage by interfering in US politics in the same entitled, partisan way.

Leo Varadkar is easy to mock. In many ways, he is our answer to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. Both men seem unable to go abroad without making complete spectacles of themselves. Trudeau was widely mocked recently for holidaying in India in a series of progressively colourful and elaborate local costumes, his intentions so painfully 'right on' that he ended up going too far and becoming a veritable poster boy for cultural appropriation.

The Taoiseach seems to be equally unable to go abroad without gushing like an over-excited schoolboy, the toe-curling reference to Hugh Grant dancing on the stairs in Love Actually when he first visited Downing Street being a prime example. One can only presume that the speech which he gave last Thursday, in which he made reference to his own small part in the refusal of planning permission for a wind farm next to Trump's Doonbeg golf resort in Co Clare, came from the same desperate need to please. How could his political antennae have been so askew not to realise that the relationship between politicians and planning decisions in Ireland has been controversial, to say the very least? Did he not run this eccentric interjection by any of those highly-paid advisers before opening his big mouth? What was he thinking?

It's still not completely clear what exactly happened when Varadkar was Minister for Transport, Sport and Tourism, and Donald got his way out West. There is no record of any calls from the now Taoiseach to anyone involved in the decision, and the official line remains that he did "nothing inappropriate".

All the same, that gaffe has made it much easier for Varadkar's critics to question his entire approach to this year's St Patrick's Day visit to the US, and that's a pity, because there is nothing wrong with adopting a more emollient tone with President Trump than many in Ireland want to see.

The Taoiseach was in a tricky position. He was effectively left holding the baby after his predecessor cocked a gentle enough, but pointed, snook at Trump during his final visit to Washington last year.

Enda Kenny was internationally lauded for standing up for the rights of immigrants, calling St Patrick their patron saint and urging Trump directly to stand by traditional American values of shelter, compassion, opportunity. His speech has since been viewed online tens of millions of times.

At republican leader Martin McGuinness's funeral a short time later, former US president Bill Clinton personally thanked the then Taoiseach from the pulpit for his words, and mourners in St Columba's church in Derry broke into spontaneous applause. Soon afterwards, Enda Kenny headed off into retirement, free from responsibility for dealing with the White House on a week-to-week basis.

Leo Varadkar does not have that luxury. He cannot afford self- indulgence. More precisely, the country can't afford it.

Coppinger was palpably irritated that economics was taking precedence over what she sees as a duty to moral leadership, but that's always a delicate balance to strike. If it comes to brutal dictatorships or theocracies such as Saudi Arabia, which export terrorism and brutally suppress the rights of gays and women, there is an argument to be made for cutting ties and taking the economic hit. The US, however, is not a rogue state, however much the Irish left might wish that it was so categorised. The current American president has said and done some things that we don't like, but that's no reason for pulling down the temple on our heads, like Samson.

Even Enda Kenny was careful in his speech last year not to directly criticise Trump's temporary travel ban from countries deemed to be detrimental to US security. He spoke in allusion. Diplomacy sometimes needs to be quiet.

Ruth Coppinger could not even bring herself to support efforts to reach a stand-alone deal over what are called the "undocumented Irish" in America, which, as Seth Barrett Tillman pointed out, is merely a polite way of describing people who in fact are illegal immigrants. They're breaking US law, and being Irish gives them no more right to be there than anybody else.

If Leo can get concessions for Irish people in the States by offering US citizens in Ireland reciprocal rights, all well and good. That's how politics works. Coppinger, though, seemed to believe that we should forego a deal out of solidarity with other illegal immigrants, as if the future of undocumented Mexicans was any more of Ireland's business than the legal status of aliens in this country is Trump's.

The Irish-American relationship is too important to jeopardise over what amounts to little more than a snobbish distaste for the cut of Donald Trump's jib.

The hard left in Ireland is at least consistent in opposing American governments. Clare Daly and Mick Wallace broke into Shannon Airport to protest about US foreign policy when Barack Obama was in the White House. It's the soft left in Ireland, what we might call the liberal beau monde, which cannot seem to get its story straight.

These people deplored George Bush's foreign adventures, but turned a blind eye to his successor's, simply because he was the first African-American president. "Turns out I'm really good at killing people," Obama once reportedly told his aides. "Didn't know that was going to be a strong suit of mine." It's doubtful that innocent victims of drone strikes felt any better about being killed on the orders of non-white world leaders, but such is the pathological self-deceit of the Obama admirers' club both in America and overseas that all was forgiven, while Trump's failings are magnified into scandals and tragedies that ought to instantly preclude him from office.

There is nothing in it for us to embrace this childish carry on. The United States is not obliged to grant Ireland the unique access which the country enjoys to the White House every year, and we'd lose far more by rejecting it for five empty minutes of grandstanding glory than they would. With the looming prospect of a trade war between America and the rest of the world, Leo Varadkar made the right call by prioritising talk of trade. He wasn't there simply for Ireland, but as a representative of the EU. What ultimately matters never changes. It's the economy, stupid. If he'd remembered that, rather than indulging in amusing chit chat about planning applications in Co Clare, he'd be having a much easier St Patrick's Day weekend.

Sunday Independent

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