Why was the Irish response to Enda Kenny’s stirring ‘Trump lecture’ so muted?

Ireland was too slow, too cynical to praise the Taoiseach’s criticism of President Trump

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

 

When international leaders have called in to say hello to Donald Trump in the White House in recent weeks much of the focus has been on hands.

The US president’s weirdly elongated handshake with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau made headlines across the world as did his hand clasp with British Prime Minister Teresa May and – most recently his apparent refusal to shake German chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand in front of the baying press pack in the Oval Office.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with President Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on Feb. 13, 2017. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with President Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on Feb. 13, 2017. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

So when Enda Kenny set off for Washington last week, few would have expected anything of more substance than memes about green ties and awkward greetings to emerge from his various meetings with the new administration.

That might explain why we were all caught slightly off guard by his stirring remarks at his third and final meeting with President Trump on March 16th, the meeting at which the bowl of shamrock was handed over.

And it might explain why we all appeared to wait until the Taoiseach’s words were validated by international media before we started falling over ourselves to also acknowledge what he said and to recognise how impressive it was.

While Mr Kenny made no reference to Mr Trump’s policies in his speech it has been widely and rightly interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism of the administration’s plans to ban immigration from certain Muslim countries and to build a wall along the Mexican border.

He told a nodding, smiling President Trump that St Patrick was an immigrant the patron saint of immigrants, in fact. “Ireland came to America because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself we believed,” he said.

“Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”

The subtext on a day when the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries had been due to be rolled out (before being blocked by the courts) could scarcely have been clearer.

It certainly wasn’t missed by the US media. An article on page 16 of the New York Times the following day appeared under the headline: “Irish Premier uses St Patrick’s Day Ritual to Lecture Trump on Immigration”.

“Irish PM trolls Donald Trump on immigration right in front of him,” was how Metro in the UK reported the speech.

A video of his words was posted on the Channel 4 Facebook page early on St Patrick’s Day and has since been viewed more than 28 million times and shared more than 400,000 times.

It has appeared on web pages connected to moveon.org, CNN, USA Today - and Occupy Democrats under the headline “Irish PM SCHOOLS Trump: ‘St Patrick Was An Immigrant’ Right to Trump’s face!”

The response on social media was also almost uniformly positive.

But the response at home was initially far more muted, which is strange where you think how quick we ususally are to acknowledge our triumphs however minor  on the world stage.

But why?

One reason is the finely honed cynicism with which we view our leaders. It is a cynicism which can see accomplishments overlooked or diminished, at least until we see how well they are received elsewhere.

Another, perhaps prosaic reason the impact the Taoiseach speech was missed closer to home for much of St Patrick’s Day and into the long weekend was timing.

The speech was delivered late on Thursday night (Irish time) so it missed Friday’s newspaper deadlines. It also took place at the end of a day which, for the Irish journalists in Washington, started before 6am so they could, perhaps, have been forgiven for developing just a hint of Enda-fatigue by the time the key moment came.

And such is the relentlessness of the news cycle that - for most journalists covering the Enda story by Friday morning the time for getting excited about what he said a day earlier had passed and their attention and their energy was focused on his return home and his apparent U-turn about his exit timetable.

But the Taoiseach did take a stand and his speech still made an impact and in an age of always-on social networks its impact is likely to be felt for sometime, perhaps even long after the man of that moment has left office.

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