Miriam Lord: Leo eases himself into things before grip ‘n’ grin with the Donald

Taoiseach in Washington for beginning of annual St Patrick’s week schmoozefest

British ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a Belfast  Agreement 20th anniversary event at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

British ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at a Belfast Agreement 20th anniversary event at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

It snowed in Washington the night before Leo arrived. Unfortunately it wasn’t Situation Room weather. The snow didn’t stick. Which is a pity, because the Taoiseach would have been able to advise the president on how best to handle this type of climate emergency from a showbiz point of view, having starred himself in a successful high-visicolour production during Storm Emma.

This shared interest in communications and media matters could have given the two men something to chat about during their exchange of pleasantries in the Oval Office – a delicate operation at the best of times, placing visiting national leaders at the mercy of Donald Trump’s mood on the day in question.

It’s no surprise to say that there are some worries around the Irish camp that the rather reserved Leo Varadkar, who was very comfortable talking high politics and low politics at a Washington foreign policy think-tank event on Tuesday, might not be so relaxed at his grip ‘n grin with Trump on Thursday. It’s not really his thing.

To ease him into the East Coast whirl, Leo’s first day in the US capital was low-key and high-brow. It immediately invited comparisons with his more high-octane and low-brow predecessor - Enda Kenny excelled at plamásing the Yanks with his folksy can-do business attitude and misty-eyed tales from the home country.

Solar plexus

They loved him on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s hard to imagine the new Taoiseach doing the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Just different.

Take last night’s main event in the wonderful surroundings of the Library of Congress when he was the keynote speaker at a public forum to mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. There were eight men seated on the platform in the Coolidge Auditorium and nine men spoke.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes questions from the floor af giving a Foreign Policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes questions from the floor af giving a Foreign Policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Bill Clinton, the final man in the line-up, delivered a video message. The line-up included George Mitchell, Gerry Adams, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and Congressmen Peter King and Richie Neal.

Two of them, Colum Eastwood of the SDLP and Leo Varadkar, stood out by dint of their youth. When these two political leaders told their audience - overwhelmingly on the mature side - that they were in school when the agreement was signed, it hit like a punch in the solar plexus to many in the hall.

The Taoiseach expressed heartfelt thanks “on behalf of the Irish Government and the Irish people” to the politicians who worked to bring about the accord.

Now it is up to the new crop of leaders to continue the job. “We will protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all it parts” he vowed.

Heritage heartstrings

He spoke as a member of a new generation, The Amendment Generation. And not a begorrah or tooraloora to be had from any of them, one suspects.

But how will that play on Capitol Hill, where the old guard were dab hands at plucking the heritage heartstrings and in return, their hosts threw open the doors once a year for highly covetable access? We’ll find out on Thursday.

The only standing ovation in the Library of Congress event was for George Mitchell, although there was also strong applause for Gerry Adams, who has been a veteran of the St Patrick’s week schmoozefests in Washington ever since Bill Clinton granted him a 48-hour US entry visa in 1994.

He had the run of the White House at one stage. Congressman Peter King paid particular tribute to Adams’s contribution to the peace process, calling him “a great Irish freedom fighter”.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was invited to attend, didn’t accept the invitation to travel. This surprised some people, but perhaps the Bert, who is much in demand as a very good contributor on the Brexit question, had a better offer.

No senior Fianna Fáilers made the trip, although senator Mark Daly, who never seems to be out of the US, was buzzing around the crowd. Meanwhile, John Deasy, who is Leo’s man in American with responsibility for the diaspora, was also present.

Former deputy director of the IMF Ajai Chopra listens as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gives a Foreign Policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former deputy director of the IMF Ajai Chopra listens as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gives a Foreign Policy speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Well-got in Washington

The biggest turnout was from Sinn Féin, with new leader Mary Lou McDonald present along with deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, who was flanked by veteran US fundraiser Rita O’Hare. The party’s press director also travelled from Dublin.

Gerry Adams may not be leader any more, but he is still very well-got in Washington. He was invited to the shamrock ceremony in the White House tomorrow afternoon, but Mary Lou didn’t make the cut. It was rumoured that last minute efforts were being made to get her into the gig. On the plus side however, her spokesman mentioned she landed a big interview with CNN.

Earlier on Tuesday afternoon, the Taoiseach addressed a foreign policy forum in the Brookings Institute think-tank, which is a top drawer and serious sort of place. Although as a gesture of welcome to Varadkar, special biscuits were laid on.

There were iced shamrocks in various shades of green, iced crocks of gold and iced leprechaun hats. Best of all though, just for Leo, there were biscuits with rainbows on them.

Not because he is gay, but because the leprechauns hide their gold at the end of rainbows. They’re very clever people.

Dry affair

Apart from that, it was a very dry affair. In the audience was AJ Chopra, the IMF man who was part of the Troika sent in to run Ireland after the bank bailout. The sight of him must have put the wind up Leo.

Also in the audience, up in the front row, was Gavin O’Reilly, son of Tony and former boss of Independent News and Media.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe addressed the Institute late last year, in a smaller room. But they invited him back.

After his speech, Leo took part in a question and answer session. He seemed to enjoy it, showing off his knowledge of international affairs and talking at considerable length.

Some of the questions from the floor were baffling. This was platinum anorak territory. Between the speeches, the questions from the floor, the earnest nature of the audience and soporific effect of it all, it was like attending a session of the MaGill Summer School but with better biscuits and teeth.

It’s all about trade on Wednesday. The Taoiseach will have discussions with the US Chamber of Commerce in the morning before heading off to a lunchtime function in the US Peace Institute where he will meet representatives of state agency companies who operate in the US under the Global Ireland umbrella.

Rattle their jewellery

He is guest of honour on Wednesday night at the annual black tie Ireland Funds Dinner, where Congressmen King and Neal will be honoured and the big-wigs of Irish-American society will rattle their jewellery.

Thursday is the big day. Leo says he will have TD John Deasy, who is rather prickly of nature, accompanying him when he meets Donald Trump. That should lighten the mood.

Any chance Enda might be in the vicinity? We could do a Gerry Adams on it and pretend he never left. Or maybe stick by the new Taoiseach, and the new generation — not representing a new Ireland, but today’s Ireland.