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Larry Donnelly: It was an unusual US presidential visit - but what is its broader significance?

The Government deserves credit for successfully handling what was inevitably going to be a tricky situation, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THERE WAS A definite buzz and sense of anticipation in Doonbeg, where this column began on Wednesday afternoon, in the now well-known and cosy confines of Tubridy’s Pub – as proud locals and curious tourists alike awaited the arrival of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J Trump.

Most of the residents of the west Clare village are favourably disposed to the divisive and widely loathed businessman turned politician.

This is not altogether surprising given the extent to which Doonbeg has benefitted from President Trump’s golf resort on its outskirts.

Hundreds of jobs at the magnificent golf course and hotel have helped to stave off some of the emigration which has always afflicted the sparsely populated communities up and down the rugged Atlantic coast.

In this context, it is understandable that they might distinguish Trump the president from Trump the job creator. And as the celebratory scenes from the village’s hostelries where his sons were the guest barmen on Wednesday evening suggest, this affection extends to his family.

Yet there has been no small amount of disparaging of their arguably short-sighted outlook from commentators who view Trump as a threat to global stability and a hate monger above all.  

The ‘bigger picture’ points that have been made in this regard have an undeniable intellectual coherence.

Nonetheless, Michael O’Regan of The Irish Times put it very well on Twitter:

Let us respect the views of the people of Doonbeg on the Trump visit, while at the same time recognising people’s right to protest. There is an uncomfortable smugness about some of the criticism of locals in Clare.

Before even landing in the United Kingdom for his official state visit, President Trump lived up (or down) to the standard of behaviour he has exhibited since being inaugurated, tweeting angrily that London mayor Sadiq Khan – who had denounced him on several fronts – was a “stone cold loser” and ridiculing his short stature.  

It was the very sort of over the top attack that horrifies his opponents and, regrettably, excites many of his core backers. His three days in the UK, however, featured a lot of pageantry and were largely controversy-free.

This was set to be a very different American presidential visit to Ireland compared to the ones that preceded it for several reasons. It was short in duration, it did not involve a trip to the capital and Donald Trump is Donald Trump. 

The disquiet that he provokes in fellow leaders was manifest in the somewhat pained facial expressions and physical discomfort of the Taoiseach at a seemingly impromptu mini press conference at Shannon Airport.

The president’s rambling remarks about “your wall, your border” in response to a question on Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement warranted his counterpart’s on the spot correction and the subsequent assertion to the effect that everything will “work out well” for Ireland when its nearest neighbour leaves the European Union, has rightly provoked concern and head scratching.  

His lack of awareness and relative indifference contrasts with the forthright and informed joint stance of Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi and her congressional colleagues on their recent trip here.

Nonetheless, the president’s answers to other queries shouted by eager journalists were appropriately greeted favourably or with sighs of relief. His support for putative Irish emigrants to take up the E3 visas not used by Australians is not new.

To hear him reiterate it was gratifying, though. It is typically glossed over, but this generally anti-immigrant president previously, albeit in passing, voiced sympathy for the Irish undocumented and was once described by Leo Varadkar as “open to finding a solution” to their plight following bilateral discussions in Washington, DC.

Trump did not condemn Ireland’s low corporate tax rate.  Instead, he conveyed a begrudging admiration for it. And when asked about President Michael D Higgins’ speech on Tuesday blasting his administration’s “regressive and pernicious decision to leave the global Paris Agreement” on climate change, he feigned ignorance and declined to take the bait.

Finally, President Trump repeatedly referenced the close kinship between our two countries and praised the contribution that Irish Americans have made to the country of my birth.

It would be a serious mistake to extrapolate much from the off the cuff soundbites of a man unaccustomed to telling the truth, and fond of propagating falsehoods, but the very brief public segment of this visit went as well as could have been hoped.

The Government deserves credit for successfully handling what was inevitably going to be a tricky situation.

Of course, this is nowhere near good enough for some. As is their right, they have made their displeasure known in protests and on the airwaves.

There are stinging criticisms that this supposedly neutral country has long facilitated American military misadventures with devastating consequences and that Irish foreign policy has become valueless and is rooted solely in self-interest.  

Those who proffer them cannot be dismissed summarily.

On the other hand, it should be noted that these charges emanate in the main from individuals and groupings on the hard left of the political spectrum with little or nothing to say when malevolent actors who aren’t American travel to these shores.

Moreover, the notion, popular in some quarters, that Ireland should turn away from Uncle Sam until January 2021 or January 2025 is terrifying.

Our extraordinarily close transatlantic ties are the envy of many far larger nations.

Potentially imperilling what successive generations of committed men and women have built, because of widespread revulsion at the present occupant of the White House – however justified that revulsion may be – would be an act of colossal stupidity.

Actually, Trump’s persona and the strong support he still commands at home make proactive engagement more important than ever.

We live in the real world, not an ideal one.  And in the current complicated milieu, when it comes to dealing with an American president the likes of whom has not been seen before, there is a perfect sense in simultaneously reaffirming our unique, mutually beneficial friendship and putting the vital interests of Ireland and its people first.

In fact, doing so might be the one thing that President Trump fully gets.

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

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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