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Biden’s first job is to douse the flames of the Trump years

Inside Politics: All major parties see the new US president as a friend of Ireland

It was not so much a torch that was passed from US president 45 to 46 but an incendiary device. By the time Donald Trump finally and reluctantly agreed to pass it over, the invasion of the Capitol Buildings had occurred, and with it a strike at the heart of American democracy.

Biden's first job after being sworn in yesterday was to begin douse the flames of the Trump years. And he started quickly. By the time the former president had settled back into his Florida resort, Biden had signed 17 executive orders, designed to undo the major changes of the MAGA agenda. One of the most important was to sign the US back into the Paris climate accord. He also reversed the ban on people travelling from certain Middle Eastern countries, and stopped work on the infamous border wall with Mexico.

It was also a red letter day in that Kamala Harris became the first female vice-president in the almost 250-year history of the States. Our US Correspondent Suzanne Lynch captures the mood of the day perfectly in this news feature.

Biden will become the oldest incumbent of the office. He is also a proud Irish-American. Like Charles Haughey he claims birthright in three different places. For Haughey, it was Dublin, Tyrone and Mayo. Biden's ancestors came from Louth, north Mayo and there is also evidence of relatives from near Oranmore, in Co Galway. Biden is known to quote lines from Heaney, Yeats and Joyce and his awareness extends to the age-old rivalry on the football fields between Galway and Mayo.


Certainly, the three major Irish parties all see him as a friend of Ireland in the international arena. At the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party last night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said a Biden presidency would reset the relationship between the US and Europe — and like many taoisigh before him envisaged Ireland have a "broker" role between the two big powers on either side of the Atlantic.

The occasion was a little eerie and strange. The speeches, songs and formalities were conducted before a vast empty space, with flags replacing people. It was largely low key and that tone probably suits Biden for now after the craziness and nastiness of the Trump years. The departing president was poisonously divisive but he generated a million headlines. For the media, there was a bit of the “you won’t have Nixon to kick around” feeling to his departure. They won’t rue the man but they may rue the end of an endless stream of box office stories.

In some senses the person who personified the day was neither the new POTUS or the new VP. It was a 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman, who recited her powerful poem "The Hill We Climb" in a riveting and expressive performance. The work touched on the destructive nature of the Trump presidency and the violent breach of the Capitol earlier this month.

“While democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated,” was one of the stand-out lines.

Here is our article on Gorman's wonderful performance, that was reminiscent of Maya Angelou in early 1993.

It is also worth looking at the video of her performing her inspiring work.

Special Needs Education row

Norma Foley’s trenchant criticism of unions yesterday raised a few eyebrows. It came after a second attempt to reopen schools for special needs students was abandoned after unions could not agree to allow their workers go back.

This time around the unions could not claim the decision was being sprung on them. There was very prolonged dialogue and negotiation, including a webinar that was accessed by 17,000 people. As of last Friday it was thought a pathway had been found to reopen schools this morning. But in the interim, it became evident that teachers and special needs assistants had got cold feet, and the unions were backtracking from the provisional agreement.

You could see Foley’s frustration in the long statement issued on Tuesday night, and her interview on Morning Ireland yesterday. The public health advice was that schools were still safe environments per se. It was unequivocal, she argued. Additional reassurances had been given. So many other essential workers such as Garda and supermarket employees continued to work.

By keeping the schools closed to this small, highly dependent, very vulnerable group of children (numbering less than 20,000) Ireland was an outlier in the EU. She also had a swipe at the INTO general secretary John Boyle over his claim that the union had not instructed members not to attend. That was "incredibly disingenuous," she retorted.

It’s one thing to follow public health advice. It’s another thing when people are spooked by the numbers. And it was clear that while the union executives might have agreed, on the ground, many teachers and SNAs were too wary about going back, despite all the reassurances. Micheál Martin acknowledged as much in the Dáil yesterday, when he referred to the sentiments expressed in the webinar.

Education editor Carl O'Brien has a very good chronology and analysis here.

There are no winners in this debate, only losers. And the biggest losers are the 18,000 or so children with special needs, and their families. Home schooling is just not even conceivable for many of these kids — some of whom are high-dependency physically, others who need the structured environment of a school to give them much-needed routine and predictability. Earlier this month Shauna Bowers wrote about the plight of families with children with special needs and the herculean efforts they must put in to look after them.

Best reads

And here is Miriam Lord's incisive read on that row over special needs education. A wonderfully accessible photo essay on the life of Joe Biden, for anyone who wants a quick synopsis of his political life, from the New York Times.

Pat Leahy's follow-up to his report yesterday on Leo Varadkar's decision to pass on a confidential GP contract to a doctor friend. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has written to the Taoiseach about it.

Peter Murtagh reports from Mayo on inauguration day about Joe Biden's Irish cousins, the Blewitts from Knockmore, near Ballina.


Leo Varadkar, the Tánaiste, will take Leader's Questions at 12.

Earlier there will be statements and questions on the Covid vaccine programme, with Stephen Donnelly in attendance.

In the afternoon there will be a session with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, on Brexit. It will be followed by Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Charlie McConalogue facing questions on the impact Brexit will have for the Irish fishing industry.

Finally, Norma Foley will be in attendance for what should be a very involved session on when the reopening of schools happens, especially for children with special needs.

No Seanad today.

All the Committees are in private session today.