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grip and grin time

Trump's 'new friend': What happened at the White House, when Enda came to visit... had a ringside seat for Irish celebrations in the Trump White House.

Enda Kenny visits US - Day Five Niall Carson Niall Carson

Christina Finn reports from Washington: 

IT WAS ALL smiles, shamrocks and Guinness at yesterday’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington DC.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny discussed plenty of issues with Donald Trump and Mike Pence, but the impending travel ban didn’t come up.

Trump’s travel ban – version 2.0 – was due to take effect yesterday.

However, a last-minute spanner-in-the-works courtesy of a federal judge in Hawaii halted the president’s plans.

The Taoiseach had been asked repeatedly in the run to this week’s events if he would raise the issue with President Trump. Speaking last week Kenny categorically said he would.

When asked if he did, Kenny fudged the answer and said he discussed the relationship between Ireland and the United States.

The relationship between Ireland and the US and Europe and the US were discussed in their meeting, he said – mentioning trade specifically.

Last May, the Taoiseach described Trump’s campaign trail comments as “racist and dangerous”. But he walked back that criticism this week, telling reporters he was speaking about the language then-candidate Trump used and that it was “not related to his personality”. / YouTube

In one awkward moment from the day, Trump was asked by Senan Molony, of the Irish Daily Mail if he was aware the man sitting next to him had called his policies racist and dangerous.

“Did you take it up with him?” Trump was asked.

There was just a smile from the two leaders, as a harried White House staffer said time was up.

The Oval Office scrum

Irish media interest in this St Patrick’s Day White House visit was at an all time high, in the wake of Trump’s shock win in last year’s general election.

Never have so many reporters been crammed into the Oval Office for the traditional handshake and pleasantries.

It was so packed,‘s representative got a swift bash on the head by a camera at one point, before tripping over onto the Oval Office couch.

Quickly registering the scene, Trump to said to the crowd, you can hurt them (pointing to the political contingent in the room) but not them (pointing to us, the media).

“They’re visitors.”

As more than one member of the assembled press remarked, it was quite the departure from the language Trump generally uses to describe journalists. / YouTube

St Patrick’s legacy

Kenny did bring up the issue of immigration – in the context of Irish immigrants in the US. The issue of the 50,000 undocumented was raised in all of the Toiseach’s speeches throughout the day (and there were many).

During one address, the Taoiseach referred to the background of the man whose feast day they were ostensibly celebrating.

“It’s fitting that we gather here each year to celebrate St Patrick and his legacy. He, too, of course, was an immigrant,” Kenny said.
And though he is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland, for many people around the globe, he is also a symbol of, indeed, the patron of immigrants.

Enda Kenny visits US - Day Five Enda Kenny's wife Fionnuala Kenny (left) and US President Donald Trump (right) at a Friends of Ireland lunch at the Capitol Building in Washington. Niall Carson Niall Carson

Kenny wants a deal done on the undocumented Irish in America. He said he hoped the Democrats and the Republicans could work together to “sort this out once and for all”.

“It would remove a burden for so many people who would say now I am free to contribute to America,” he told a packed room at Capitol Hill.

With high-profile Trump aides like Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer looking on, Kenny took the opportunity to turn and look the President in the eye and tell him he wanted to see movement on the issue.

“We’re gonna do something about that,” mouthed Trump to House Speaker Paul Ryan.

It was a point he made again at the traditional shamrock ceremony, in which Kenny said:

Ireland came to America, because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed.
Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans. We lived the words of JFK long before he uttered them – we asked not what America could do for us but what we could do for America. And we still do.
We want to give and not to take. The Irish have built bridges and roads. They have protected the public as firefighters and police officers. They have cared for the sick in hospitals. They have entertained as poets, singers and writers. They became politicians, judges and legislators.
And as entrepreneurs they have provided hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans including, most recently, in exciting technology companies.

Enda Kenny visits US - Day Five PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

He added:

This job, the job you hold, is exceptionally demanding and exceptionally difficult.  The United States remains the most influential, as well as the most powerful country in the world.  You hold the hopes and the future of America, and indeed, the world in your hands.

While the travel ban may not have been mentioned specifically, Kenny’s supporters might argue that the subtext of the Taoiseach’s repeated references to immigration spoke volumes.

Powerful Irish-American figures like Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan were reminded time and time again of their heritage, in recent days – and how they too come from immigrants.

Former Senator George Mitchell – one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and a highly respected figure in the Irish-American community – delivered a pointed speech in Pence’s presence at the Irish Funds Gala dinner on Wednesday night.

He reminded Pence – who has roots in Sligo –  that the immigrants he hails from have the same dreams and aspirations as the immigrants of today, and reminded the audience that there was a time when it was common to see signs saying, “Irish need not apply”. / YouTube

Love for Ireland

Alongside the regular references to immigrants, the senior political figures who took part in yesterday’s events engaged in the usual sort of plámás-ery that’s become traditional in Washington around this time of year (but which often makes viewers back in Ireland cringe).

“I really love Ireland, I’ll be there absolutely,” Trump said in response to a question about when he would be visiting Irish shores.

Ryan spoke of his ancestry and love for the home country, before attempting a less-than-convincing Irish accent and drinking a pint of Guinness.

“We love Ireland and we love the people of Ireland,” said Trump at the Capitol Hill lunch. That was followed by similar remarks at the shamrock ceremony when the US President said the Irish people have enriched America.

Referring to Ireland as America’s “faithful partner” and “loyal friend” he said the US “will always be there for you”.

He read one of his favourite Irish proverbs too (although it’s unlikely anyone from Ireland in the room will have recognised it -see below)…


The St Patrick’s Day events are nothing new to the Taoiseach, but his relationship with the latest tenant of the White House is.

And that may be what Kenny is ultimately judged upon, on his return to Ireland.

While many back home will be satisfied with the Taoiseach’s lobbying effort on behalf of the Irish living in America, Trump’s description of him as a “new friend” won’t do Kenny any favours back home.

(In one exchange of banter between the two men, Kenny referred to Trump’s election success, remarking “you beat them all”. ”I’ve been through 20 of them,” he added. Kenny has represented Mayo in the Dáil since 1975.)

Trump told the politicians in attendance at the lunch on Capitol Hill that he is “proud” the St Patrick’s Day tradition has flourished.

He also said he would stand with “our Irish friends”.

And while it remains to be seen whether the guest-of-honour’s messages about a deal for the Irish will have been heard by America’s most powerful politicians, it’s fair to say that many back home will want to know why a nation whose roots are embedded in emigration did not speak louder for those living in the shadows – the shadows that were once occupied by the Irish, not so long ago.

Read: Trump travel ban was halted because it would cause “irreparable injury” if it went ahead >

Read: When is racist language racist? Enda Kenny facing big questions in the US >

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