In the wake of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from certain Muslim-majority countries entering the USA, there have been calls for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to abstain from the traditional St Patrick’s Day trip to the White House. Should he stay or should he go?
At time of writing, one online petition has reached almost 34.5k signatures calling for the trip to be cancelled. The tradition of presenting shamrock to the US President at the White House has possibly never attracted this level of controversy. (Then again, has any new POTUS been so unpopular amongst the Irish? It took several years and at least one war for Bush Jr to reach these doldrums.) Few, and possibly no, voices have been raised in support of Trump’s new border policy––the division largely appears to lie between those who believe An Taoiseach should boycott the whole affair in protest, and those who believe he should go in spite of it and even take it as an opportunity to challenge Trump on his approach.
The latter approach has been advocated by, amongst others, Irish Politics Forum Editor-Emeritus Eoin O’Malley. The logic here is straightforward: The traditional St Patrick’s Day visit gives us a unique level of access to Trump and his senior team, and the right thing to do here is to take that opportunity to challenge him directly on these policies and make it clear that Ireland is resolutely opposed to such measures. Other, perhaps less altruistic, voices have been raised to speak in support of the visit for its two traditional raisons d’être: securing the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) from the US and pleading the case of the ‘undocumented Irish’ living in the States.
However straightforward and intuitive the logic, the approach is less safe in practice. Whether the goal is standing up to Trump or supplicating to him, it requires two elements to work: a Taoiseach who is willing and capable in the act of advancing Irish concerns, and a President who is amenable to at least hearing them out. Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin, who served for five years in Kenny’s first cabinet, has expressed doubt that this would be the case––though it is not clear whether he believes it is the first criterion or the second that would trigger the downfall. Whatever the view, Howlin knows Kenny better than many others; if he doubts that a Kenny visit to Washington would have the desired effect, it is worth considering his comments.
In any case, it may simply be that An Taoiseach is the wrong person to send to Trump with a message of parley. In the classic style of the narcissistic autocrat, Trump does not like to hear dissent. He has surrounded himself with a ring of steel in the form of advisors who protect him from any such challenging views; for an example of how dissenters are treated in this administration, look to his sudden firing of former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she refused to defend his travel ban. If Trump is willing to violate custom and practice––and invoke behaviour that has led to the impeachment of former Presidents––to rid himself of a troublesome AG, why would we assume that he would allow a foreign leader to lecture him––particularly when that leader has previously criticised him in their national parliament?
Even if An Taoiseach was to engage in the sort of forelock-tugging, knee-bending, ego-massaging humiliation that would be required to gain Trump’s attention for such a hearing, there are other barriers. Trump has shown no indication whatsoever that he will consider rolling back on the travel ban; thus far, he has given no comfort to those who believed that his actions in office would not reflect the excesses of his campaign rhetoric, and there is little reason to believe that this will be any different. Similarly, if Trump is serious about his intentions to restrict American companies from investing capital abroad and bringing those jobs home, he is unlikely to be moved by an Irish plea for FDI. And as for the matter of the undocumented Irish: while most will not fit the Muslim or Mexican profiles of those who Trump intends to target with his immigration crackdown, there is no reason to assume an exception can or would be made for the Irish. This is not a normal politician with normal policies that are open to negotiation, influence, and compromise.
Finally, even if––and it is a considerably big ‘if’––An Taoiseach was able to sway Trump’s opinion on these matters, there is one final problem: Trump has thus far displayed, beyond a small handful of principles that mostly apply to himself, an unusual habit of agreeing with the last person he has spoken to on most issues. Think his interactions with General Mattis here: Trump supported torture, Mattis talked him out of that view, he publicly agreed with Mattis, but then reverted to his previous position some time later, presumably after consulting with torture aficionados in his advisory team. It seems unlikely that the hardline nativists would brook any deviation from the America First line regardless of what might be said during the meetings at the White House. An Taoiseach, and Ireland along with him, may well paint himself as aligned with and appeasing of an increasingly bizarre and autocratic US regime for the benefit of a change in opinion that does not last longer than the flight home.