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Should he stay or should he go? Micheál Martin and the trip to the White House

The official line is that nothing has been decided yet.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Image: PA Images

THE LAST TIME there was this much debate about whether a taoiseach should go to the White House was four years ago. 

Donald Trump had just been inaugurated and an effective refugee ban became the tipping point for various political parties to openly call for a boycott. 

In the end Enda Kenny did make the trip stateside and engaged in all the formalities, while also praised being by US media for a speech he made in which he “lectured” Trump about immigration.  

Last year the trip was also somewhat contentious due to the nascent coronavirus crisis but it never really looked in danger of being completely scrapped. 

In the end the trip went ahead but events overtook the situation and Varadkar was forced to close Irish schools from Washington DC. 

This year the temperature of the debate is closer to 2017 than 2020, with more doubt than ever before about whether the trip will go ahead. 

The official line is that nothing has been decided yet and that whatever happens the bi-lateral relationship “will be marked” in some way. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there’ll be engagement “over the coming weeks” and that while he wants to go on the trip “the virus will dictate” whether it happens

But while Martin can fairly argue that Covid-19 may take the decision out of his hands, the likelihood is that a call is going to have to be made at some point. 

At a briefing this week, a government spokesperson confirmed there has been no recent discussions between the Taoiseach and President Joe Biden about the potential for the trip.

The pair spoke by phone after Biden’s election but not since the inauguration, so the formalities around scheduling or an RSVP haven’t arisen. 

Indeed, there is no specific invite for Martin to travel this year, with each visit down to an “annual standing invitation” that has existed since 1956.  

The annual invite to the world’s most powerful office is clearly a ticket that countries around the world look enviously at, and there are concerns in government circles that if it were to be skipped for a year the precedent might lapse. 

Much of the public attention on the trip usually unfairly focuses on the presentation of the bowl of shamrock. This tradition has been in place since before the trip became an annual event but in reality it’s only a tiny part of the wider summit. 

The shamrock focus perhaps more than anything has led people to argue that the trip can be skipped for a year and that Martin might do better by setting an example and working from home.

Or that he could show that foreign travel should only be undertaken when absolutely essential and decide against this one. A number of opposition politicians have made this argument, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín among them

There’s also the argument that people looking for a dubious excuse to justify their own actions in travelling somewhere will use Martin’s trip as just that.

It’s an argument that wouldn’t usually be used to influence a government decision but such is the importance of maintaining social cohesion right now it cannot be discounted. 

Essential work

The Taoiseach is an essential worker and representing the country abroad is clearly an essential part of that work. 

What’s less clear is whether a diplomatic trip to Washington could or should be considered in the same bracket as executive EU business, where EU decisions legally require Irish consent. 

Government TDs have argued that the trip is also about building relationships and emphasising policies and that these priorities do not disappear during a pandemic. 

This may be true but the Taoiseach has himself acknowledged that the same opportunities to meet people won’t be available this year. 

“Most governments would give the right arm to have the type of opportunities that we normally and ordinarily have on Patrick’s Day, but because of Covid-19 creates a context,” he told RedFM this morning,

“Normally and ordinally”, as the Taoiseach puts it, the annual trip to Washington DC always involves a lot more than just the White House.

In reality it’s a week of events involving a large travelling party consisting of IDA and various other trade envoys pressing the flesh at client companies across the US. 

This element will of course be absent this year. A fact unlikely to change even if the Taoiseach does go over. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the IDA said it is pursuing a “digital-first policy” and that it is “finalising a virtual client engagement programme for St. Patrick’s Day”.

Not exactly a clear “we’re not going” but certainly an acknowledgement that this year’s event will primarily be a Zoom-based affair. 

leo-varadkar-visit-to-us-day-2 Donald Trump and Leo Varadkar in 2019. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Images

RSVP

The argument that not making the trip could somehow dent the chances of future trips seems a bit far-fetched with the Hibernophile that is Biden in the White House. 

The Taoiseach has repeatedly spoken about Biden’s eagerness to travel to Ireland as president, so the chances of Ireland’s return invite being rescinded seems slim.  

If the trip does go ahead there is some speculation that it may only be a 24-hour trip and without all the pomp and circumstance. 

Such a meeting could perhaps be a happy medium and prove to be quite a victory for Martin, especially seeing as he may only get one more go at it next year. 

But if a decision is made that the trip doesn’t go ahead are they any alternatives? “All options are on the table”, according to the government. 

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The idea of something akin to virtual chat may seem odd but it might actually find a receptive partner in Biden. 

Before and since becoming President Biden, the 78-year-old has conducted several important meetings virtually as a way of demonstrating his seriousness about Covid-19.

His endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both came by way of a Periscope chat and his lifelong dream of becoming the Democrat nominee also took place virtually from his home state in Delaware.  

Indeed, even since his inauguration Biden has sworn in over 1,000 federal employees by video conference. Given those circumstances, having a virtual meeting with a foreign leader doesn’t seem too outlandish. 

Much of the consideration will of course also have to be given to risk to parties involved in any such meeting. Not just the politicians but their teams too. 

Unlike Biden, the Taoiseach has not been vaccinated and the Cabinet decision for ministers not to receive the vaccine until they are due under health guidelines was reaffirmed this week. 

This decision hasn’t quite been settled yet and will likely be raised again when the question of ‘key workers’ arises at group six of the priority order

First though, there’s St. Patrick’s Day to get through.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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