‘Utterly engaged’ Macron talks up support for Ireland on Dublin ramble

Joyce, Brexit, Kabul and Sophie Toscan du Plantier among wide variety of topics

French President Emmanuel Macron took an hour-long walkabout in Dublin during his visit to Ireland. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin gave Emmanuel Macron a special, limited edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses as a gift when the French president visited him at Government Buildings on Thursday.

After bilateral talks and an outdoor press conference, they took a leisurely walk to Trinity College, pausing to listen to a piper and fiddler in front of the National Gallery. They stopped at Sweny’s chemist, where Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap for his wife, Molly, talked to tourists at Lincoln’s Inn pub and posed for selfies with them.

The French president’s day-long Dublin adventure started at Áras an Uachtaráin in mid-morning, under a bright blue sky, with birdsong and the Defence Forces band playing national anthems.

“Ireland occupies a precious place in the heart of the European dream,” Macron wrote in President Michael D Higgins’s guestbook. The two presidents talked about social Europe and post-Brexit Europe, climate change, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti and the global Covid-19 vaccination programme.

The pair walked down the gravel path to the peace bell, which President Mary McAleese moved from the house to the garden to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Macron pulled three times on the blue satin cord.

Misneach and Bród, the presidential Bernese mountain dogs, bounded up. “This is an experienced diplomat,” the President said, patting nine-year-old Bród. “The new fella is not as sophisticated and well-trained.”

In the State Drawing Room, the two leaders sat on Marie-Antoinette’s pink brocade sofa, which Charles de Gaulle gave to Éamon de Valera.

Some of Ireland’s best minds sat around them, in a circle of chairs and sofas. Paul Gillespie, a UCD academic and specialist in British-Irish relations, talked about the new triangulation between the UK, Ireland and the EU since Brexit, and the way that what happens in the UK affects Ireland more than any of its European partners.

Macron “was really there, in that room. He was utterly engaged,” said the broadcast journalist Doireann Ní Bhriain, who moderated the “writers and thinkers” session organised by President Higgins.

No obstacle

Catherine Day, the former EU secretary general and chairwoman of the citizens’ assembly, told how the results of referendums on abortion and gender equality mirrored the results of the citizens’ assemblies they followed.

The President said that since the financial crisis, Brexit and the pandemic, the State has ceased to be seen as an obstacle to innovation. Yes, his French counterpart agreed, Brexit and the pandemic were game-changers.

The philosopher Richard Kearney produced a photograph marking the launch of Memory, History and Forgetting by the late French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Among the smiling faces was a 22-year-old student with thick, long hair who had worked with Ricoeur.

“That’s Emmanuel Macron,” Ricoeur told Kearney when he gave him the photograph in 2000. “Watch him. He will be a leader of France.”

At Government Buildings, there was disquiet over the explosions at Kabul airport. The Taoiseach thanked Macron for the logistical support France provided to the team of Irish diplomats and Army Rangers who travelled to Afghanistan to extract 36 Irish citizens. “Ireland will be generous to refugees from Afghanistan,” Martin said. “We also want to ensure there is the capacity in Ireland to create a good life for them”.

Macron addressed Irish anxiety that pressure might mount in the EU for customs checks between the North and South if the UK continues to violate the Northern Ireland protocol. European solidarity with Ireland will not falter, he promised. “This is an existential question for the unity of the EU. We will make sure that the accords which were signed after long negotiations are duly respected … including the protocol. To say it in more familiar terms, we will never let you down.”

Ian Bailey case

Asked why Ireland has refused to extradite Ian Bailey, who was convicted in absentia in Paris in 2019 of murdering the French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier in west Cork in December 1996, the Taoieach expressed empathy for the dead woman’s family and said the killing was still an open wound. “We want justice done,” he said. “It is a terrible stain … What happened continues to grip the Irish public.” Macron said the case showed the necessity of building “a Europe of justice”.

Linda Doyle, the provost of Trinity College Dublin, greeted Macron at the gate of the university. A carefully selected group of students had waited in the Students’ Public Theatre, a gem of 18th-century architecture, for two hours. They asked intelligent questions about vaccine inequality, migration and global supply chains.

Macron had been going non-stop for eight hours, but he was still fresh and smiling. “I would like to defend Europe,” he said. European scientists had made the “tremendous accomplishment” of developing a vaccine against Covid in less than one year. China used its vaccines for “vaccine diplomacy”. Russia encountered production difficulties. The US kept 100 per cent of its doses for the domestic market. “In Europe, half the vaccines were exported. We were by far the most efficient and generous region of the world.”

Macron was an intellectual with the intellectuals, a politician with the politicians, a professor with the students, and late in the day an entrepreneur at the Guinness Enterprise Centre. His day ended where it had started, at Áras an Uachtaráin, for dinner. President Higgins summarised centuries of Franco-Irish friendship in a dinner speech, and Macron flew back to Paris, having by his own admission learned a great deal about Ireland.