Trump ensures rocky ride for Varadkar in Irish-US relations
Administration’s right-wing Irish-American identity poses challenge for future taoiseach
US vice-president Mike Pence. The former governor of Indiana has suggested that gay people should receive medical treatment to change their sexual behaviour. Photograph: Bill Ingalls/Nasa via Getty Images
The visit this week by Enda Kenny to Chicago brought to an end a chapter in Irish-US relations. Kenny used the visit to reaffirm one of his policy priorities as Taoiseach – his announcement in March of a proposed referendum on extending voting rights to Irish emigrants, a priority underpinned by his appointment of Chicago-based Billy Lawless as a senator to represent the diaspora.
Addressing a group of Irish-Americans in Chicago, Kenny spoke of the importance of resolving the status of the undocumented Irish living in the United States.
“The undocumented Irish built their lives in America, they work hard, they want to have their contribution recognised and fully validated . . . The Irish Government will continue to press for comprehensive reform,” he promised.
Kenny’s departure also opens up inevitable questions about how his successor will navigate Irish-American relations, one of Ireland’s most important bilateral relationships in terms of trade, culture and politics.
The issue is a potential diplomatic minefield for Leo Varadkar. As minister he was one of the most outspoken critics of the policies of President Donald Trump and vice-president Mike Pence in particular. Pence is widely perceived as the most socially conservative of Trump’s inner circle. A former Catholic who became an evangelical Christian, the former of governor of Indiana has suggested that gay people should receive medical treatment to change their sexual behaviour.
“I don’t like what Trump and Pence stand for, particularly on social issues,” Varadkar said in an RTÉ interview in November. “The right approach, I think, with anyone is to respect their religion, respect their values and engage with them. That’s how you win over minds and soften hearts,” he said.
Varadkar said he would like to personally meet Pence if he came to Ireland and “tell him the story of our country, the country of his ancestors and how we went from being one of the most conservative countries in the world [to where we are now]”.
While a visit by Pence could happen in the coming year – a proud Irish-American, the vice-president has visited Ireland numerous times – the future taoiseach is likely to meet him anyway next March at the traditional St Patrick’s Day breakfast at the vice-president’s residence in Washington.
Pence, who was honoured at this year’s annual Ireland Funds’ gala dinner during St Patrick’s week, has emerged as a key figure in the relationship between Ireland and the Trump presidency. Should Trump be impeached or resign – a prospect that looks increasingly possible – Pence would become the 46th American president.
A man who is passionate about his Irish heritage – Pence’s sisters and wife sat with tears in their eyes as the family was honoured by the Ireland Funds – he has infinitely closer connections with Ireland than Trump, whose interest lies with his Scottish heritage.
How Varadkar will navigate this prospective meeting remains to be seen – taoisigh generally attend the breakfast with their partners. He will also inherit the outgoing Taoiseach’s decision to invite Trump to Ireland. Many countries, Britain in particular, are beginning to rally against the idea of such invitations as the US president pursues ever more offensive policies.
Apart from the diplomatic challenges, Varadkar’s appointment as taoiseach-elect may also raise challenges for the Irish-American community in the United States. As Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin, wrote recently in The Irish Times, the political affiliations of Irish-Americans are difficult to pin down.
A recent survey based on readers of the Irish Central website found that most Irish Americans still vote Democratic despite anecdotal evidence that they do not.
Nowhere is the emergence of a right-wing, nativist Irish-American identity more evident than in Trump’s administration, where several Irish Americans hold key positions, including Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and Pence himself. Even outside the political realm, there exists a strong strain of Irish America that continues to cling to a romanticised image of an Ireland that no longer exists, one rooted in a socially-conservative vision of nationalism and the family.
Whether that vision will accommodate a gay taoiseach of Indian origin is unclear. What is certain is that Varadkar, should he be taoiseach next March, will face the conundrum that has beset almost every foreign leader – how far do you engage with a president who epitomises almost everything you stand against as a politician, an individual and as a representative of your country?