IT may be an archaic expression, but hail-fellow-well-met perfectly describes the meeting of US President Donald Trump and our Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the White House in Washington, DC, on the eve of St Patrick’s Day. It means showing excessive friendliness or familiarity and there was certainly no shortage of such cringe-worthiness among the two leaders, who were only meeting for the first time, especially on the President’s part, as Enda and Fionnuala Kenny became his new best friends within minutes.
While one could dismiss it out of hand as a form of paddywhackery, the tradition of presenting the US President with a bowl of shamrock on or around St Patrick’s Day does provide enviable access for a small country such as ours to the main players in the upper echelons of power in the United States. It’s an opportunity that has to be used judiciously and it was once again this time around by the Taoiseach and his entourage, despite strong populist pressure to berate President Trump over his quest to treat immigrants from Muslim countries more harshly than those from other countries.
As fate decreed, there was another US Supreme Court challenge to the President’s latest executive order on immigration that took the heat out of the issue for now and all the Taoiseach was able to do was to, once again, highlight the plight of the estimated 50,000 Irish people living illegally in the United States. This has been done every year for a long time and with several US presidents, but the plight of the undocumented Irish in the States remains the same, as does that of several other nationalities also.
It is accepted that the Irish, despite our special relationship with the United States, cannot get more favourable treatment than any other immigrants, so one could ask why even bother trying to make a case for them? However, the reality is that various Irish governments over the years failed them and, in most cases, emigration was forced upon them by a lack of job opportunities at home, so the government owes it to them to make the best case they possibly can for them.
None of the Irish people trying to live life below the radar like this in the States want to be in the legal limbo they are stuck in, unable to travel home for family occasions and, increasingly, having to hide their status as illegal immigrants as they are being targeted more robustly by the Trump administration in fulfilment of his election promises. By continuing to highlight their plight, it may eventually force the US government to come up with a cohesive policy on the status of immigrants generally, although President Trump’s initial knee-jerk efforts in this regard do not provide grounds for much optimism.
Immigration is a political hot potato that has been kicked down the road by successive US administrations and there are serious grounds for concern about how the issue will be dealt with by the current one, in spite of Enda Kenny’s emotive direct plea to Donald Trump that ‘Irish immigrants had fought every war for America and died for America, and will continue to do so. All they want is the opportunity to be free.’ The Taoiseach also pointed out that immigrants would have a huge part to play in the President’s quest to ‘make America great again.’
The Taoiseach also extolled the mutual benefits of the European Union, the threats Ireland faces as Britain leaves the EU and the problems this may cause for the Northern Ireland peace process after a number of agreements which the United States helped broker. Resisting any urge to be ungracious to his hosts, Enda Kenny got across the key messages he wanted to deliver and maintained cordial relations between Ireland and the United States – which matter a lot more than the personalities involved at any given time.
Not to offer a reciprocal invitation to the US President to visit Ireland wasn’t really an option, but the invitation has caused upset among many people in Ireland who believe Trump to be a racist and misogynist, and no doubt there will be public protests when he comes here. Some sections of the media predicting it would lead to civil unrest are taking it too far; public protests are par for the course when foreign leaders visit other countries.
As to whether Enda Kenny will be here as Taoiseach to greet President Trump is a moot point. While in the United States, an embargoed script of a speech he was to deliver was withdrawn and replaced by a new one in which a reference to it being his last St Patrick’s Day visit to the United States as Taoiseach was removed.
It will be interesting to hear what he has to say to the Fine Gael parliamentary on his return.