Ireland gets attention from US out of all proportion to its size

Country’s input into foreign affairs issues now channeled almost entirely through EU


In a piece for the special supplement in last Wednesday’s Irish Times, historian Diarmuid Ferriter wrote of how John F Kennedy’s visit as president in 1963 began a 50-year relationship between Ireland and the White House.

This week the extent to which that relationship endures was reflected on both sides of the Atlantic. On Tuesday, the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, and her daughters visited Dublin and Wicklow while, just over the Border in Fermanagh, President Barack Obama himself attended the G8 summit with other world leaders. Their trips attracted extensive coverage across all media platforms both here and in the US.

Meanwhile, over in Washington DC, the impact of the Kennedy presidency was revisited in a poignant ceremony at JFK’s graveside in Arlington cemetery when a flame was taken from the eternal flame there to travel to New Ross where, this evening, it will be used to ignite a special monument to Irish emigrants. Even the American media were fascinated by the symbolism involved, with both the Washington Post and the Huffington Post giving it the equivalent of front-page coverage.

Kennedy reminded us when addressing the Oireachtas during his visit that Ireland is “a five-foot nation”. As a country we have managed to reach above our height through the influence of our diaspora and through the imagination and creativity we have shown in literature and the arts and more recently in the technology sphere.

Special relationship
We have also managed to reach above our height in our political relationship with the US. That particular relationship is still enormously useful. It is a nonsense to suggest, as some have this week, that we should downplay it in some way.

Diplomats representing nations five times our size envy the access which their Irish counterparts in Washington DC have managed to get to US presidents and White House staffers. Ireland is the only nation that has a designated day on which its head of government has access to the Oval Office.

Even during the Reagan and Bush years, US presidents gave attention and assistance to Ireland out of all proportion to our size. The Irish have skilfully exploited the access and affinity which presidents have shown us in the interest of commercial, tourist and investment gain for Ireland. On occasion, that access has been leveraged to offer an Irish view on US foreign policy but, in so doing, Irish diplomats have to have regard to Ireland’s small size.

When it came to policy matters, Irish taoisigh, foreign ministers and ambassadors chose their moments carefully in requesting White House assistance. More often than not, the requests made related to Northern Ireland which, for decades, was the dominant focus of Irish foreign policy. During his visit in 1963, Kennedy said nothing publicly and little privately about partition, but of course that was before the Troubles erupted. Later, when peace in Northern Ireland became a real prospect, US presidents became key patrons of the peace press ultimately appointing special envoys and Bill Clinton himself became a direct participant in the Belfast Agreement peace negotiations.

Apart from this heavyweight diplomatic assistance, the White House has at times played a very active part in the promotion of Ireland’s economic interest.

Perfect showcase
The detailed itinerary for Michelle Obama’s trip would have been the subject of careful consideration at the highest level of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Tourism Ireland, the US embassy here and the Irish Embassy in Washington. It is obvious Glendalough was chosen as a picturesque site easily accessible from Dublin and a perfect showcase for the Irish tourism product, offering heritage and natural beauty. Similarly, the Book of Kells is steeped in history.

The sites created vivid pictures, all of which fed into our effort to increase visitor numbers from the US – and other countries – with media covering the Obamas’ visit. Going to Riverdance was also a good idea, providing traditional music and dance in a modern representation.

Arranging for the First Lady and girls to lunch with Bono, while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, served to exponentially raise the profile of the visit. He is, after all, one of our few homegrown megastars. Rather than fawning over either Michelle Obama or Bono, as Claire Daly implied, the Government and tourism marketeers could just as easily be said to be exploiting the celebrity of both.

Political discourse
None of this takes from Ireland’s right to disagree with or criticise any aspect of US foreign policy. US presidents are used to robust criticism. The reality is that most of Ireland’s engagement on international political issues with the US and with other countries is co-ordinated now through the European Union, so the opportunity for unilateral political grandstanding, of the type some would like Irish Ministers to engage in, does not arise.

Meanwhile the invitation to Taoiseach Enda Kenny to have a cameo role at the G8 summit was a neighbourly gesture from the British prime minister. There would have been no opportunity in reality for the Taoiseach to discuss Syria or any substantial issue. The Irish view on Syria, such as it is, has already been reflected at various EU discussions.

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