Fintan O’Toole: Kenny can either simper to Trump or speak up
The Taoiseach should speak as passionately as he did when denouncing the Vatican in 2011
The Taoiseach has to talk about migration – he has done so every other year he’s been at the White House. Photograph: Eric Luke
Enda Kenny has had many dreadful days as Taoiseach and a few very good ones. The good days were those on which he stepped out of character as a jobbing politician and spoke for Ireland. He did it in 2011 when, after the Cloyne report into clerical child abuse, he gave an angry, passionate, measured and moral speech denouncing the Vatican. He did it again in 2013 when he delivered an emotional and powerful official apology to the Magdalene women.
And now Kenny faces a question: how does he want to be remembered? His visit to Donald Trump’s White House for St Patrick’s Day is, we are assured, one of the last set-piece international occasions of his long career. He will have the world’s attention for a day. He has to decide whether this is to be a lap of genuine honour or the dishonourable act of a lapdog. Before he makes that choice, he should think about a young woman called Carole Feraci.
There is a very strong argument – eloquently made this week by the former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley – that the Taoiseach should not go to the White House at all for the St Patrick’s Day jamboree. But there’s an even stronger argument for doing something that would require much greater moral courage: go and speak truth to power. This is where Feraci comes in.
Kenny is certainly old enough to remember the Ray Conniff Singers (as alas am I). They were the epitome of bland, wholesome easy listening.
In January 1972, Feraci was asked to sing with them at a 50th anniversary bash for Reader’s Digest at Richard Nixon’s White House. She initially declined on moral grounds but, as she told a magazine in her native Canada last year, “after thinking about it, I thought I should go and say something”. She made a hand-written sign saying “Stop the Killing” and hid it in the bosom of her floaty blue ballgown.
Just as they were about to launch into Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me, she unfurled the sign, and spoke directly to Nixon: “Mr President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation. You go to church on Sunday and pray to Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and Daniel Ellsberg. ” (The Berrigan brothers, both priests, were anti-war protestors; Ellsberg was the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon papers.)
It was a stunning moment. Nixon maintained a frozen smile but in the infamous White House tapes he is recorded saying, “You can’t imagine the shock in the room.” Martha Mitchell, the wife of then attorney general John Mitchell, shouted out that Feraci should be torn “limb from limb”. Yet Feraci will always be remembered as a woman with the moral courage to say what had to be said.
Ireland is the Ray Conniff Singers of international diplomacy. Our country is there in the White House on St Patrick’s Day as bland easy listening amid the ugly noise of the Trump presidency. And as Feraci realised, when you’re in that situation, you either simper and sing for your betters or you speak up as a moral being. She made her choice and Kenny has to make his.
It must be remembered that the Trump regime itself has no interest in diplomatic niceties. It recognises two classes of human being: those who are with it and those who are against it. The Taoiseach and his entourage can go to the White House and suck up to Trump and slap the backs of his Irish-American cronies like Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway. He’s very good at that: they will all be delighted with him and they will all feel good about themselves and what they are doing.
Or the Taoiseach can say something meaningful and get slapped down by Trump and his enablers. There is no middle way with these people.
I’m not suggesting that Kenny hide a protest banner in his bosom and unfurl it before Trump. But he does have to speak as passionately and with as much obvious outrage as he showed when he denounced the Vatican in 2011. And he has to address the question on which he has real standing: immigration and Trump’s obnoxious demonisation of migrants. After all, the whole point of the Irish being in the White House on St Patrick’s Day is that it is a celebration of the contribution of generations of migrants, many of them initially ill-educated, poor and despised, to the creation of the United States.
The Taoiseach has to talk about migration – he has done so every other year he’s been there. But if he talks about it in this new political context without taking a clear and pointed moral stance, he will disgrace himself and belittle his own country’s history. To raise a glass or several to the courage and persistence and decency of migrants while pretending that you are not doing so in the company of people who are actively terrorising and criminalising migrant communities would be quite nauseating.
Kenny should ask Miriam O’Callaghan (not the RTÉ presenter) who wrote those powerful Vatican and Magdalene speeches, to write him one of equal power. He should send it in advance to the White House. And if they tell him he can’t deliver it, then he should go instead to the Tenement Museum in New York and do it there. The world would listen and his words would matter. He would end his career with dignity and stature. Or he could just smile and simper and wink and nod and slink off the stage in a posture of shameful self-abasement.