Should Mr Kenny Go to Washington?

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.


Happier times.

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.

3 thoughts on “Should Mr Kenny Go to Washington?

  1. ‘ Few, and possibly no, voices have been raised in support of Trump’s new border policy’
    Other than the sixty three million persons who voted for Donald J. Trump.
    Furthermore, let’s not all be social science graduates and throw our toy’s from our pram when something, in far, far away land, does not go how we thought it ought.
    The presentation of the bowl of shamrock between leader of a small island 3000 miles from the USA and the President of the USA is the opportunity to seek some assurance that, when, if, DJT cut’s US corporate tax rate, Google, Intel, HP, Facebook et. al. shall not simply fly home, leaving only a handful of staff in Dublin and Kildare to protect their european tax benefit, how then would we pay for our, overpaid, public sector and even those, again engaged in building homes, who could not then sell them as, there’d be no income to purchase them, there go the bank’s, again.
    On-line petitions are great, for the feckless whom have little else to do with their time, but, would they not be better off looking at the big picture and realise, we’re overspending, again, and to continue this, we need US firms, remember what the EU bullyboy’s told us pre Lisbon 1, vote yes or no investment, where is that investment, if the US goes, Ireland can fold up and, again, cry to the IMF, the ECB will not be in the position to help this time.

    • People who have so little to do with their time that they spend 10 seconds putting their name to online petitions, rather than people who are so busy they have time to type out long, incoherent spiels in internet comment sections?

  2. Very good overview of the arguments. I have no expectation that a Taoiseach, – any Taoiseach – would have the capacity to get a serious hearing from the egomaniacal narcissist that occupies the White House. To that extent then I think you set the bar too high. What I want to see is a Taoiseach that can undertake the basic business of getting Irish interests heard within the wider administration – and especially on Capitol Hill – and in the wider Irish-American community. It is the platform of the visit that is critical not the photo-op and chat in the Oval Office.

    To that extent then my ambitions for the bowl of vegetation event are simple. I want the Taoiseach to register the fact, publicly and in a high-profile manner, that Ireland’s values are not those pursued by the present US administration: that we are not to going to jump ship from the EU and that we adhere to international cosmopolitan values. I don’t need Trump to listen or even engage – I just want him in the room when the Taoiseach speaks – strongly.

    Thus, my only fear – and it is substantial – is that the Taoiseach is not up to that task and that we get a Trump-directed shambles of shamrockery. We have seen Kenny execute well at this level – his Dail speech on Church-State relations and abuse comes immediately to mind. If he can reach to those heights we will be well served. But, yes, the doubts are there.

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