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'By any objective measure, Enda Kenny acquitted himself and the Irish people honourably'

Enda Kenny had a difficult tightrope to walk and he performed admirably writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“TAOISEACH THAT’S MY new friend, a great guy…and Fiola (sic), you’re something special, too.”

In his own inimitable, rambling style, and apparently untroubled by Enda Kenny’s remark in the Dáil last year about then candidate Trump’s racist comments, the President of the United States welcomed his guests from Ireland to the White House.

Although some of the television images would suggest that President Trump wasn’t particularly happy while sitting for pictures with the Taoiseach, he probably should have seen it as a welcome respite from what was a long week for him and his administration.

Likewise, the Taoiseach had a topsy-turvy week while he was in America. Let’s retrace each of their footsteps prior to Thursday’s annual shamrock shindig.

Several days ago, President Trump’s tax return from 2005 somehow came into the possession of a journalist who passed it on to the left-wing talk show host Rachel Maddow. She promptly revealed the contents on air.

It turned out to be a damp squib. Trump paid $38 million to the government on earnings of approximately $150 million.

This rate of around 25%, while still fairly low, was not as obscenely minuscule as some observers anticipated and there is credible speculation that the administration itself leaked the return.

If this was a minor hiccup, the decisions of federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland to strike down the second so-called “Trump Ban” on immigrants from six predominantly Muslim countries was a major setback.

Trump President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, and their son Barron, walk towards Air Force One. Source: AP/Press Association Images

The second ban was purportedly “constitution proofed” after the first was similarly rejected in the courts. The outcome has pleased his opponents, but the judges have arguably overreached.

Broad authority is customarily conferred by the judiciary on the president on the issue of immigration. Unambiguous statutory language allows the president to suspend entry of foreigners whenever he decides “it would be detrimental to the interests” of the US; and a Supreme Court precedent states that courts may not look past a neutrally worded (as the second one is) ban to ascertain its intent (as the Hawaii and Maryland judges have).

Nonetheless, President Trump made a colossal blunder in attacking the judiciary for halting the first ban and these further losses may be seen, at one level, as push back.

He has encountered serious difficulty in fulfilling his campaign pledge to abolish “Obamacare.”

The bill favoured by many conservatives and currently under consideration would disproportionately impact a lot of poor and working class people who voted for the president. Republican senators in states like West Virginia and Ohio, where many of these disadvantaged voters live, have balked at supporting it.

It seems to be dawning on the president that health care is an extremely complex matter and that the politics of it are even more vexing, especially for someone who only prevailed because he garnered the backing of an unusually economically diverse coalition of Americans.

President Trump is also learning that getting legislation through the two houses of Congress is an altogether different task to signing executive orders.

Enter Enda

Meanwhile, shortly after arriving on US soil, the Taoiseach announced that a referendum will soon be held on extending the right to vote in presidential elections to Irish citizens who reside outside the country.

This is not an unusual or radical proposition – the vast majority of western democracies, unlike Ireland, do not disenfranchise their citizens living abroad – but it provoked an extraordinary reaction back here.

Enda Kenny visits US - Day Five An Taoiseach speaks to the media after meeting Donald Trump. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Visceral opposition revolves either around the fear that the electorate at home will be “swamped” by those who have never been here, yet could access citizenship though an Irish born grandparent, or the “no representation without taxation” mantra.

Others assert that this is just not a priority and simply a tactic to divert attention either from more pressing substantive issues or from the Taoiseach’s desire to cling to office for as long as possible.

Either way, extrapolating from the heated debates in a variety of forums this week, emigrant voting rights are far more contentious than many inside and outside of Government circles had previously thought.

Enda Kenny may wish he hadn’t mooted holding this referendum while speaking to the media in Philadelphia. He subsequently went to Boston and received what the Irish left regarded as a rebuke from the city’s mayor, Martin Walsh, a son of Connemara emigrants.

At a press conference, Mayor Walsh, who leads a city that is now more diverse than ever and is campaigning for re-election to a second term against an African-American city councillor, indicated that he would not support any effort to legalise solely the Irish undocumented.

Instead of contextualising the Irish American mayor’s politically necessary stance, commentators have run with the “see, nothing can or should be done for the Irish” line.

The fact, however, is that Enda Kenny is the prime minister of Ireland, not the mayor of Boston, and has a moral duty to advocate for the undocumented (or illegal) Irish, a substantial number of whom left this country due to a dearth of opportunity and who have contributed greatly to the economy and societal fabric of a country where they are forced to live in the shadows.

And the Taoiseach can tell their story at the same time as he can be a unique, white voice in a larger, darker chorus urging immigration reform for all without legal status in the US.

Indeed, returning to the White House, the Taoiseach did follow both tracks: he talked about 50,000 of his own people who can’t return home for momentous occasions, both joyous and sad, and he spoke of their being a small part of a much bigger tapestry of immigrants in a country built by immigrants, all of whom want to play their part in “making America great again.”

Trump meets the Taoiseach of Ireland Fionnuala Kenny, Donald Trump and Enda Kenny on the South Portico of the White House. Source: DPA/PA Images

It was powerful stuff, and the Taoiseach did very well in diplomatically tricky circumstances in Washington, DC.

The opposition to and scrutiny of his visit to see an American president so widely abhorred at home was and is relentless, even though it was imperative that he go. By any objective measure, he acquitted himself and the Irish people honourably; there was no “Love Actually moment,” but he was far from supine.

Already, usually sensible politicians like Brendan Howlin and Eamon Ryan, joined by some of their eternally unreasonable colleagues, such as Ruth Coppinger and Richard Boyd Barrett, have attacked the Taoiseach for his “failures” in America and his invitation to Donald Trump to visit Ireland.

Yet they will surely relish the chance to protest him at every turn when and if he does come here as president.

In light both of myriad economic and other realities and of the long-term friendship between the two countries, Enda Kenny had no other choice than to invite the man who had him as a guest of honour in the White House.

If he hadn’t done so, it would have been a betrayal of the virtue of hospitality that the Irish are so well-known for around the world and which underpins the unparalleled access they enjoy to the most powerful men and women in the world every year at this time – seriously cringe inducing moments notwithstanding.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

He will be speaking at a public event on the Trump presidency at NUI Galway on Wednesday, 22 March. Details here

Read: Donald Trump tried to joke about wiretapping with Angela Merkel. She didn’t laugh >

Read: Enda Kenny won’t step down until Brexit strategy in place >

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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