Government prepares to negotiate tightrope of Trump visit

Managing protests will be main challenge during November visit

US President Donald Trump’s motorcade passes by protesters outside Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, US, September 1st. Photograph: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

US President Donald Trump’s motorcade passes by protesters outside Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, US, September 1st. Photograph: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

 

News that US president Donald Trump is to visit Ireland in November has given the Government a late-summer surprise.

His trip will mark the first visit of a sitting US president to Ireland since 2011 when Barack Obama visited Dublin and Moneygall, Co Offaly. Obama, then in the third year of his presidency, was greeted by thousands in College Green in Dublin. This time, the main challenge for officials will be managing the protests that are likely to take place.

The announcement of the president’s visit on Friday was expected by the Government in Dublin, although serious overtures by the White House to Irish officials about a potential visit were only made in earnest last week.

The Trump administration had initially weighed a trip to Ireland during Mr Trump’s visit to Britain in July, after his attendance at the Nato summit in Brussels. Ultimately, however, he chose to instead spend time at his golf course in Scotland before flying to Helsinki for his summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The proposed visit in November was very much a decision taken by the White House.

With a standing invitation issued by taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2017 during his St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington, and renewed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar this year, it falls to the White House to take up that invitation when it chooses. “President Trump may be a controversial president, but he is still president of the United States,” said one official briefed on the preparations.

Ireland’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one issue where Ireland and America do not see eye-to-eye

Plans for a visit to Ireland emerged once Mr Trump decided to attend the Armistice Day commemorations in Paris in November. That decision was made about two weeks ago, after he decided to abandon plans for his own military parade in Washington DC in November. He initially had the idea for a grand military event in Washington after attending Bastille Day celebrations in France last year. Having decided to attend the Armistice Day centenary commemorations in Paris, the White House then approached Irish officials through the embassies in Dublin and Washington about a potential Irish visit.

Since news of the visit broke, the silence from the Taoiseach has been notable. But he is likely to come face to face with Mr Trump later this month when both men attend the UN General Assembly in New York.

Unpopularity

As has been the case for many other countries, the prospect of a Trump visit poses a diplomatic quandary, given his unpopularity internationally.

But while the historic links between Ireland and the US are likely to be highlighted during the trip, Ireland faces some challenges to ensure the visit goes smoothly.

The Dáil’s decision to pass a cross-party resolution condemning US immigration policy of separating children and their parents in July did not go unnoticed in Washington. During his speech to the Dáil ahead of the vote, Mr Varadkar said “no one can defend the scenes of children being forcibly separated from their parents”. That the Government moved to censure the actions of the US government – while often failing to criticise other regimes such as China for human rights abuses – was seen as significant.

Similarly, the vote in the Seanad in July to ban the importation of goods from Israeli settlements caught the eyes of US lawmakers, including Irish-American figures such as House speaker Paul Ryan. While Irish-American bonhomie goes a long way in ensuring positive relations between Dublin and Washington, Ireland’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one issue where Ireland and America do not see eye to eye. The enormous power of the Israeli lobby in American politics – both on the Republican and Democrat side – is something Irish officials have to navigate carefully given Ireland’s stance on the issue.

Tellingly, within minutes of tweeting his support for Mr Trump’s visit on Friday night, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney criticised the US decision to end aid to a UN Palestinian refugee agency in a tweet.

“This decision is shocking and will make peace even more difficult. How can u (sic) promote peace and target innocent children,” he tweeted, illustrating the gulf between Ireland and the US on the issue.

The Government has the unenviable task of welcoming a US president who is one of the most divisive figures in recent history

The precise itinerary for the presidential visit will be decided after an advance party from Washington, including secret service detail, travel to Ireland in the coming weeks to assess the logistics of the visit.

Mr Trump famously prefers to stay in his own bed – or in one of his own hotels – when travelling, so any visit to Dublin is likely to be brief, and could centre on the US ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park, a relatively easy-to-secure area, as well as the Trump resort in Doonbeg in Co Clare. In the meantime, the Government has the unenviable task of welcoming a US president who is one of the most divisive figures in recent history.

Preparing to negotiate that diplomatic tightrope will be the main challenge in the weeks ahead.