Kenny hears call for unity between US political adversaries
US Speaker Paul Ryan warms up Taoiseach and Barack Obama at St Patrick’s Day lunch
US president Barack Obama at the annual Friends of Ireland Lunch at the US Capitol in Washington, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the table, March 15th, 2016. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan warmed up Taoiseach Enda Kenny, President Barack Obama and the rest of the audience at his St Patrick’s Day lunch in Washington with jokes about his trip to Ireland last year.
Visiting his forefathers’ home in Graiguenamanagh in Co Kilkenny, he and his family visited the graveyard where their ancestors were buried and found a grave that said, “Here lies a politician and a honest man”.
His youngest child, he said, asked: “How’d they get two people in the same grave?”
Recalling how former president Ronald Reagan and then-speaker Tip O’Neill kicked off the Speaker’s lunch as an act of defiance against the bitter partisanship of politics to poke fun at each other and break bread, he said it was going “against all odds” to work, joke and pray with your opponents.
Kenny reminded Ryan and Obama of their ancestral homes and said that because “Moneygall is not that far from Graiguenamanagh”, they could easily find a halfway point to shake hands.
The acting Taoiseach will have been listening closely to the call for greater unity between these two American political adversaries.
Kenny, speaking to reporters after leaving the West Wing of the White House after his Oval Office meeting with Obama, held out an olive branch to Fianna Fáil on the possibility of reaching a deal on some form of government.
“I invited all parties publicly in the Dáil the other evening to work with us to put together a lasting, working government for the people, and that includes all like-minded parties. Fianna Fáil as one party has responsibilities,” he said.
Vice-president Joe Biden, speaking at the St Patrick’s Day breakfast hosted for Kenny at his Washington residence, lamented the bloody nose that electorates give politicians who have achieved much in office.
“Like all of us in politics, he did a hell of a job. He is still the most popular guy in the State in this country and he lost,” he said, later telling Kenny: “If you ran in America, you would get 80 per cent.”
Kenny, looking tired after a bruising period around a punishing election, remained upbeat that he wouldn’t lose power.
“My belief is that in our country, over the next short period ahead, we will be able to put together a stable government that will last the time, and do the business in the interest of the country,” he told the audience.
At Biden’s residence, the Taoiseach recalled a visit by UN general-secretary Kofi Annan to Ireland when he was asked why God had made the world in less time than he had to fulfil his goal of restructuring the UN.
‘God had an advantage’
“Well God had an advantage - he worked on his own,” Kenny recalled Annan saying. It was a veiled reference to the task Kenny himself faces.
A reminder of the Civil War divisions that spawned the parties he is trying to find agreement between came in a gift he gave Obama: a set of cufflinks whose design is based on buttons from the greatcoat worn by Michael Collins when he was assassinated in 1922.
The US president, like Kenny, used the feel-good occasion of the St Patrick’s Day meetings to try to quell the inter-party unrest incited by the hateful rhetoric of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump at his rallies.
While Obama admitted he and Ryan might “fiercely disagree” on policy, he would never say anything to disparage the Speaker personally.
“I don’t have a bad word to say about you as a man and I would never insult my Irish like that,” he said.
The president, speaking to an audience that included the Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the “Friends of Ireland” lunch in the US Capitol, noted the experience of the Troubles, when political division has gone too far.
“There are those here who have fought long and hard to create peace in Northern Ireland and understand what happens when you start going into these dark places, the damage that can be done and how long it can take to unwind,” he said.
Kenny returned to the White House to deliver his Waterford Crystal bowl of shamrock to Obama before flying back to Dublin overnight to continue negotiations on forming a new government.
Asked leaving the West Wing yesterday did he think he would be back at the White House next year, the Taoiseach said: “I hope so.”