‘Donald Trump loves Ireland’: Ireland and the US president

Irish-Americans close to Donald Trump can’t understand animosity towards him

 Members of Stop Trump Ireland stage a protest in Dublin against US president Donald Trump’s visit to Ireland last June. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish TimesPhotograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Members of Stop Trump Ireland stage a protest in Dublin against US president Donald Trump’s visit to Ireland last June. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish TimesPhotograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

There’s nowhere quite like Worth Avenue, Palm Beach, Florida – with the exception, perhaps, of Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, California. Worth Avenue is appropriately named, as those strolling past the shops, cafes and restaurants here are literally displaying their worth from every available limb, dripping diamonds and clunky watches and small clutch bags and handmade leather shoes – and that’s just the men.

Palm Beach is home to an outpost of nearly every high-end designer store you could mention, and the parking lots look like displays from an auto show.

Lunch is spent sheltering from almost year-round searing heat in shaded terraces and patios or air-conditioned dining rooms. Italian cuisine is popular – or at least the American version of Italian food.

Palm Beach is ground zero for the elite and wealthy, just like Beverly Hills. There, however, the crowd is most likely to be Democrat. Here it is most likely to be Republican

This is the town in South Florida where US president Donald Trump likes to spend as many weekends as possible, holed up on the golf course and high-end resort club that is Mar-a-Lago. It’s a magnificent property, but it’s not the only one on this little peninsula jutting into the sea, connected to West Palm Beach by a series of bridges.

This is the ground-zero destination for the elite and wealthy – just as on the far west coast Beverly Hills could be said to be the same. The difference being that there the elite and wealthy crowd is most likely to be Democrat or liberal. Here they are most likely to be Republican.

Palm Beach is home to Brian Burns, a proud Irish-American who has spent much of his life, like his father before him, campaigning and fundraising for Ireland and Irish causes. He’s a third-generation Irish-American who traces his roots to Sneem in Co Kerry.

Shortly after the election in November 2016, he met his “good friend” and president-elect Donald J Trump at the nearby Mar-a-Lago club. On that occasion, Trump asked Burns to be his ambassador to Ireland. Burns was honoured and delighted and he accepted. A photograph of Burns, Trump and his wife Melania from that night has a prominent position in his office now.

However, Burns had a stroke the following month and decided that he just wasn’t well enough to take up the role. It was disappointing, he says, but he has tried to keep up his involvement in other ways. He is still involved in Irish affairs and acts as something of a go-between between the president and those in the Irish-American community.

He has a long career of philanthropy and fostering Irish affairs. He funded a library in Boston College, the Burns Library, named for his father, the Hon John J Burns. It has the largest collection of Irish books and rare material outside Ireland.

He funds a scholarship on the Irish Studies programme in Boston College, whose graduates include former Irish president Mary McAleese. He also amassed one of the largest private collections of Irish art in the world, until he auctioned most of it off in November 2018, raising $4.2 million in Sotheby’s, one of the largest-ever results for a private sale of Irish art.

Brian Burns in his office in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2017. The Irish-American, who has spent most of his life campaigning on Irish issues, believes Ireland’s relationship with his good friend Donald Trump ‘could be a hell of a lot better’. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Brian Burns in his office in Palm Beach in 2017. Photograph: Simon Carswell

In 1978 Burns became the youngest-ever director of the American Irish Foundation. That agency was founded by US president John F Kennedy and Irish president Éamon de Valera to encourage American charitable fundraising for Irish causes.

When Burns took over he soon realised that another group, the Ireland Fund, which had been founded in 1976 by Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Pittsburgh-based Irish businessman Anthony O’Reilly, was doing similar work, so he suggested, and in 1986 shepherded, a merging of the two.

On St Patrick’s Day 1987, at a ceremony at the White House, they merged to form the American Ireland Fund. That has since grown and operates in 12 countries, and is now known simply as the Ireland Funds.

Now in his early 80s, Brian Patrick Burns says he has a close relationship with the president, and they speak regularly by phone or in person, mostly in Palm Beach but occasionally in Washington, DC.

Burns says he is a great admirer of Donald Trump, despite his own, and his family’s, lifelong association with the Democratic Party. He grew up just six miles from the Kennedys in Massachusetts, and the families were close friends. His father was lawyer to Joe Kennedy snr, the patriarch of that family, and was also close with Tip O’Neill, who went on to be speaker of the US House of Representatives.

The president looks, as do I, at the terrible articles that are written about him in the Irish papers. Your press is even tougher than the United States’

At 29, he became the youngest judge in the history of Massachusetts. Later, he was the only Irish Catholic on the board of CBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System, to this day one of the major channels in the US.

In the early years of the second World War, Burns’s father arranged for a cable hook-up from Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, to enable Frank Aiken, the then minister for foreign affairs, to address the American people and to explain Ireland’s position in the war.

But Burns says he doesn’t recognise the Democratic Party of today. Although he is a proud supporter and confidant of the president, he’s not a Republican either, and, given his background in Boston, he has problems with how the Republican Party treated Irish people for generations. Now he’s a registered independent voter.

He says that Donald J Trump is really a Democrat at heart too, and he can’t understand the animosity that so many people in Ireland have towards him. He acknowledges that he is quite popular with many Irish-Americans, but the views in Ireland are so different.

He says that, while there is no Irish-American voting bloc, there should be one focused on Ireland. “In a nice, confident, quiet but very purposeful way to say we want the interests of our homeland to be considered and given some priority.

“I feel very strongly that president Trump has that feeling. He loves Ireland. He looks, as do I, at the terrible articles that are written about him in the Irish papers. Your press is even tougher than the United States’. And sometimes I wonder why don’t they give this new president a chance and let him go to work?

“He’s the first president that owns lots of land and has some hopes and dreams for Ireland, and you find him a really great friend of Ireland. But, sometimes, perhaps Ireland could reach its hand out too.”

Burns feels this is a dangerous game for Ireland to play. He says the relationship between Ireland and the US now, with Trump in the Oval Office and potentially set to be there until January 2024, needs work. “It could be a hell of a lot better, and it should be.”

I have high hopes that President Trump and the Congress may start to loosen the bonds which have really kept Irish immigration way, way down

Diplomacy at the highest levels can’t exist without access. Early in 2019, Ireland’s Ambassador to the US, Dan Mulhall, and his wife, Greta, were invited to dinner by Burns. The dining destination? Mar-a-Lago. The surprise guest they ran into while there? President Donald J Trump.

Burns may no longer be set to be the US ambassador to Ireland, but he continues to do what he can for Ireland, Irish issues and Irish people. So he purposely brought the Irish Ambassador to Mar-a-Lago so there could be a long and informal meeting with the president.

The president later said to Burns that he wanted to do something for the Irish on immigration and asked Burns to take a lead on getting it done. This chink of light for those campaigning spread rapidly through the Irish-American community. If the presidential door was slightly ajar, many were ready to push through it.

Veteran immigration reform campaigner Niall O’Dowd says, “That comment set off an alarm bell for us. We need to try and do something about that, and we have been trying. It’s all about how you have to play the game. We’re banging away now on that Trump comment. And will we be successful? We might well be.”

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, presents the traditional St Patrick’s Day bowl of shamrock to US president Donald Trump at the White House on March 14th. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Getty Images
Leo Varadkar presents Donald Trump with a bowl of shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Olivier Douliery/Getty

Burns says this is the case. “I have high hopes that President Trump and the Congress may start to loosen the bonds which have really kept Irish immigration way, way down. They could, of course, allow many more E3 visas and other ones. That whole subject should be revisited and reopened, and the gate should be opened up very wide. Let’s have intercourse between the people of Ireland and the people of this country.

“For the business world, I think Ireland is an ideal place. It’s an entrance to the European market, it has a beautifully educated student body, and the people of Ireland are still the warmest and most gracious and welcoming of any place that I’ve been in my life.”

Burns says there is a problem currently in the US with an oversupply of immigrants and it has to be solved. “But Europe, and in particular Ireland, needs a wider welcoming mat from this administration. It would be nice if Ireland looked at president Trump and opted to think, ‘My God, he owns property in Ireland. His son Eric and his wife, Lara, spend a lot of their time here.’ He has every warm motivation to Ireland.”

The filter that you folks see through in Europe is generally woefully biased against the president

Mulhall says that in his dealings with the president and the administration, it is true: when it comes to Ireland, the president is “always perfectly positive and pleasant”.

“He always says the right things about Ireland. He’s positive about the immigration issue. He wants to be helpful on that. He understands the importance of the peace process. While he may be partial to Brexit, for other reasons, he, I think, is careful not to want to do anything or say anything that would compromise peace in Ireland,” says the Ambassador.

“Also, he has never said anything negative about us, as such, that I’m aware of – given that he has a tendency to shoot from the hip. We haven’t attracted any negative attention from him over the last two years, which is a good thing. It shows that there’s a generally positive attitude towards us within the administration.”

The president’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, also agrees with Burns’s assessment that Trump gets a raw deal in public opinion in Ireland. “The filter that you folks see through in Europe is generally woefully biased against the president.”

He blames CNN for that, because it is the largest international English-language TV channel, and he believes they are “out to get” the president, so people watching their coverage, he feels, don’t see a fair representation of how he is.

He says they don’t dwell on it in the administration because none of the people abroad who protest against the president actually have votes. He says it is “frustrating” to him on an individual level because when he goes overseas he feels he has to explain the situation.

Burns says that Trump is misunderstood by many in Ireland and that he has an affection for the country that is as great as that of Clinton or Kennedy or Reagan. He says he doesn’t deserve the animosity with which he’s treated.

“He hasn’t done anything to Ireland! Ireland’s great,” he says, “and they ought to accept this guy.”

This is an edited extract from The Tribe: The Inside Story of Irish Power and Influence in US Politics, by Caitríona Perry, published by Gill Books. Perry will sign copies of her book at Eason, Dundrum Town Centre, on Saturday, October 19th at noon

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