Back-slapping Taoiseach failed to stand up to Trump

Contrast between Merkel’s body language and Irish bonhomie could not have been starker

An Taoiseach addresses the White House as part of an official visit for St Patrick's Day. Video: The White House

 

On Monday, following a hectic week of travelling around the east coast of America following Enda Kenny on his St Patrick’s Day odyssey, I found myself straight back into the daily maelstrom of US political life covering the enthralling five-hour testimony of FBI director James Comey in Congress.

Even before the hearing began, president Donald Trump sought to control the narrative, claiming that the real story was leaks from the intelligence community to the media. This riff was picked up in the hearing itself when Republican questioners relentlessly tried to tilt the thrust of the discussion to the leaks that led to reports about Trump’s Russian ties, rather than the topic in question – Russia’s interference in the US election.

In effect, there were two narratives going on in the room – one, peddled by Trump allies and backed up by the man himself in his live-tweeting of the event, which focused on the role of the media; the other questioning the FBI chief about the explosive confirmation that an investigation is under way into dealings between the Trump campaign team and the Kremlin.

I was struck by the parallels with the minor twitter storm that erupted over Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s White House speech and the Irish media coverage of it.

As the weekend papers in Ireland digested the Taoiseach’s trip, the story became not about Kenny’s trip to the US, but the way the Irish media reported it. It’s the oldest PR trick in the book. In fact it is straight out of the Trump playbook – make the story about the story and not about the issue of substance.

I was among the 20 or so Irish journalists covering the Taoiseach’s week-long visit to the White House, reporting on Kenny’s visits to Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and New York.

Personable and upbeat As a journalist I have covered

Kenny, mainly on his visits to Brussels and other European events as Irish Times European Correspondent. I have generally been positive about the Taoiseach; his strengths are obvious – he is personable, optimistic and upbeat, attributes that play well in an international setting such as Brussels or Washington.

On a personal level I was in favour of the visit to the White House – I thought he was correct to continue the tradition of St Patrick’s Day in the White House, believing that the visit is about more than the personalities involved and instead about the long-term diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

But as someone who was up close and personal with the Taoiseach for the week, I found the whole episode an exercise in hypocrisy. Rather than stand up to Trump, the Taoiseach was surprisingly obsequious. He decided to invite Trump to Ireland – and while this has been spun as a given, it was a choice. He didn’t have to – German chancellor Angela Merkel for example didn’t invite him back to Berlin. It’s all the more peculiar given that the Taoiseach will no longer be in situ if and when the visit takes place.

The bonhomie and banter displayed between the two men was excruciating – the contrast between Merkel’s formal dignified body language when she met Trump the following day and the back-slapping of the Irish couldn’t have been starker.

The Taoiseach chose to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory – “You beat them all, whatever they say,” he said to laughs at the speakers’ lunch – an extraordinary political statement considering that the FBI has launched an investigation into Russian manipulation of the election.

 

Throughout the week-long visit, journalists pressed the Taoiseach on whether he would raise the travel ban. He didn’t. Instead he pushed to revive a scheme for E3 visas that would be available just to Irish citizens and not to other Europeans. To state the obvious, the Taoiseach’s comments that gained international traction on the internet were a small excerpt of thousands of words he spoke over the week.

Yes, they were powerful, well-written, subtle and they were reported by Irish and international media alike – but the Taoiseach’s officials were as surprised as anyone else when they began to gain traction. There was no mention of the speech by any of the press officials to the media when I spoke to them on Friday morning, no move to highlight this passage in particular on St Patrick for mention.

Maybe they had spent too much time in the company of Sean Spicer at the private party at the Ambassador’s residence on Thursday night, but by late Friday they were pressurising the media over their coverage, Trump-style. I’d experienced this before – I recall a particularly ferocious clampdown by the Government on media coverage after last year’s Apple judgment – but this time Kenny’s appearance had an important political element.

Traditional and new media

With the Taoiseach having an eye on his legacy – some even whispered he should run for president – it was important the visit was a success. So too for his team who presumably will be on the lookout for new opportunities once the Taoiseach resigns.

The furore over Kenny’s speech presents an interesting case study about the clash between traditional and new media.

Has the entire notion of sending reporters to cover the Taoiseach become redundant? Maybe we should all just get our coverage via international channels and find out what others think before we make a judgment.

As a Taoiseach who is notoriously reticent about engaging with the press, the past week in Washington offered the media an important opportunity to question Kenny about the issues faced by the country – a key strand of democracy.

I was reminded of an anecdote from my Europe days when I made the monthly pilgrimage to Frankfurt for the monthly European Central Bank governing council meeting during the dying days of the bailout. Each month I would put my hand up and desperately try to catch the eye of the austere ECB president Mario Draghi. After a few months of asking about the Irish promissory notes I was berated on Twitter – mostly by bankers who wanted to hear about the rationale for further interest rate cuts to ensure they could make their next million.

Afterwards, a senior ECB official approached me and thanked me for coming down each month. He said that, as the monthly press conference was the only opportunity for the media to question the ECB, it was important that the voice of the bailout countries was heard. This was the one opportunity to make the ECB accountable. It was important an Irish journalist take it.

With media opportunities being live-streamed more and more on the internet, the temptation is simply to tune in online and watch. In fact, why do we need journalists asking questions when we can tune in ourselves on YouTube? But imagine the daily White House press briefing without questions, or Draghi dictating his speech from Frankfurt on loop every month, or Irish ministers for finance telling everyone that everything is fine as they do a quick clip for the camera on their way into a Eurogroup meeting in Brussels as the country is going down the tubes?

There’s no need to describe the next step. You just need to read Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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