Kenny got it wrong on Sinn Féin but right on Trump

US president inadvertently rescues Taoiseach from embarrassing political faux pas

Donald Trump's controversial executive order restricting travel to the United States caused a heated debate in Dáil Eireann, with Enda Kenny forced to reply. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

US president Donald Trump’s immigration ban may have created a headache for Enda Kenny but it also rescued the Taoiseach from an embarrassing political faux pas that could have hastened his departure from office.

In an interview with political correspondents last Thursday, Kenny appeared to leave the door open to a coalition between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin at some stage down the line.

While there is actually little or no chance of that happening for the foreseeable future, the fact that the Taoiseach even entertained the notion horrified many Fine Gael TDs and party members and represented a nice publicity boost for Sinn Féin.

The coterie of Fine Gael TDs who want him gone as soon as possible were galvanised by the comments, seeing in them a chance to bring forward the date for his departure.

Kenny’s remarks were prompted by Mary Lou McDonald’s revelation in an Irish Times podcast that her party would be willing to go into coalition as a junior partner.

Clumsy

This represented a big change from the party’s previously held position that it would only consider entering government as the senior partner in a coalition.

Whether Kenny’s response, when questioned by journalists at a press briefing, was too casual or simply clumsy it gave his internal enemies the opening they had been waiting for and proved a publicity coup for Sinn Féin.

To compound the problem, the Taoiseach did not provide any clarification on the issue until Saturday when, after a number of senior Ministers had disassociated themselves from his views, he stated emphatically that “the Fine Gael party position is, has been and will remain, not to enter into coalition government with Sinn Féin”.

Mary Lou McDonald interview

By this stage the media was agog with predictions that he would face a revolt by TDs when the Fine Gael parliamentary party met on Tuesday and his clarification appeared to be a desperate attempt to head it off.

And then Trump intervened with his radical immigration measures, whipping up an international storm. Fine Gael’s internal politics vanished into the shadows as Opposition politicians and the media demanded to know if the Taoiseach intended to go to Washington as planned to present a bowl of shamrock to the US president on St Patrick’s Day.

Just for good measure British prime minister Theresa May swept into town on Monday for talks about Brexit which represents the biggest challenge facing an Irish Government in generations.

Kenny’s response to the pressure to cancel the St Patrick’s Day event was swift and decisive and commanded not just the full support of his own party but that of Fianna Fáil as well.

Disdain

He made it clear he had no intention of cancelling his White House visit but would use the occasion to outline the Government’s objections to the immigration policy being pursued by the US administration.

The loudest demands for cancellation of the visit came from the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TDs in the Dáil who share Trump’s disdain for conventional politics even if they reject his immigration policies.

The surprise, though, was that Labour leader Brendan Howlin also joined the fray not only condemning the US immigration ban but saying that if it remained in force, “Enda Kenny should not be boarding a plane to Washington in March”.

It was a strange move by Howlin, given that he was in government up to a year ago and knows the reality of international relations.

A refusal by the Taoiseach to avail of what is now an annual invitation to the White House on St Patrick’s Day would have the capacity to do serious damage to the State’s national interests, not only in terms of trade and investment but also when it comes to representing the rights of the 50,000 or so illegal Irish immigrants in the US.

While almost all of the TDs in the Dáil, and presumably a majority of the Irish electorate, deplore the actions of president Trump on immigration there is nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost by a boycott of the White House.

Notorious

The hard reality of international relations is that our political leaders have to encounter on a regular basis the leaders of states whose human rights records leave a lot to be desired.

For instance President Michael D Higgins is due to pay an official visit to Cuba, Colombia and Peru later this month. Nobody, least of all the left-wing TDs in the Dáil, is calling on him not to go, despite the violation of human rights and free speech that has been a feature of life in Cuba for decades.

Of course the President is right to go to Cuba just as former president Mary Robinson was right to shake hands with the notorious General Pinochet in Chile two decades ago.

International relations have to be conducted on the basis of national interest and respect for the sovereignty of other countries rather than self-indulgent emotion.

What our political leaders can do is to clearly state the Republic’s position on issues such as human rights and immigration during their official visits, whether in Washington or Havana.

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