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Diarmaid Ferriter: Supine pragmatism will define Irish dealings with Trump

Ireland’s foreign policy and neutrality has always had a degree of ambiguity

A variety of voices will be heard in the next few weeks insisting that Ireland can and should have its diplomatic cake and eat it during the Trump era, and that Enda Kenny should have no qualms about going to the White House for the annual St Patrick's week party. This will continue a long process of compartmentalisation when it comes to the US and Irish foreign policy, with its attendant history of currying favour, enlisting help and shadow language to avoid awkward realities.

Former senior diplomat Seán Donlan was adamant this week that the tradition should continue because Irish politicians have been and can continue to be vocal in their criticism of American foreign policy. He cited the example of Garret FitzGerald criticizing Ronald Reagan’s policy in South America when Reagan visited Ireland in 1984. That’s because Ireland does not “kowtow” to anyone in the framing of its foreign policy, as a “sovereign, independent” nation.

Such assertions will be contested, an indication of the long-apparent ambiguity around Irish foreign policy and neutrality.

On February 15th, 2003, some 100,000 people marched in Dublin to protest against the imminent war in Iraq. A month later, on March 14th, US president George Bush spent most of the morning with then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and a 200-strong Irish delegation drowning the shamrock in the White House.


As was reported in this newspaper, this was not necessarily a free lunch: Afterwards, Ahern “made it clear in Bertie speak that Shannon would be available to the US military if they decided to go it alone”.

Conflicts motion

The following week, Ahern requested a recall of the Dáil to discuss the now launched Iraq invasion led by the US and Britain. The taoiseach moved a “foreign conflicts” motion endorsing “the decision of the Government that Ireland will not participate in the coalition’s proposed military action against Iraq”.

However, the motion referred to “the long-standing arrangements for the over flight and landing in Ireland of US military and civilian aircraft; and supports the decision of the Government to maintain those arrangements”.

This, Ahern suggested, was a simple case of realpolitic: "The United States and Great Britain are our partners in the Northern Ireland peace process, working with us to bring peace to our island. They are our biggest trading partners and the biggest foreign investors in the Irish economy. They are host to the biggest Irish communities overseas. They share many of our political and civic values and they are particularly worthy of our understanding where it is appropriate.

“The Government is convinced that the withdrawal of such facilities at this time could not but be seen by any objective observer as a radical and far-reaching change in our foreign policy and in the long-standing national interpretation of what is and what is not participation in a war.”

During that debate, Enda Kenny suggested the use of Shannon “is a stand-alone decision with possibly dire consequences . . . to suggest that Ireland’s self-interest lies in acquiescing to anything that any other nation wants of us, lest that nation subsequently reduces its economic commitments to this country, is the expression of a debased notion of nationhood . . . We are not the 52nd state of the United States. We are a free nation”.

Necessary pragmatism

Diplomats will reject any contention that these issues are black or white; that their world is inevitably one of necessary pragmatism and cultivation of well-connected contacts, which Donlon, a former US ambassador, excelled at in pursuit of the peace process. Flexibility is needed, the argument goes, because of the nature of the criss-crossing relationships at stake – Irish-American, global, Anglo-Irish.

Even the idea of an Ireland that can use access to the White House to speak not just for the country but also for Europe as has been suggested by Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. With that, however, we can also expect a continuation of the recent tradition of Irish politicians being mostly supine in face of American priorities.

The shamrock gesture dates from 1952, when Irish ambassador to the US John Hearne quietly dropped a box of shamrocks into the White House for Harry Truman. This was all about trying to improve Irish-US relations, which had been so damaged by Irish neutrality during the second World War, a reminder that Irish foreign policy in the distant past was sometimes robust enough to prioritise sovereignty over kowtowing to the US.

Not in recent years. It is now, it seems, left to President Michael D Higgins to articulate the values that Irish politicians should communicate in reaction to the frightening excesses of Trumpism.

In 2003, the same Higgins contributed to the debate on the Iraq War and concluded simply that “we are lessened at home and abroad by allowing ourselves to be complicit in an outrageous action”. That assertion will resonate for many Irish people when Enda Kenny drowns the shamrock with Donald Trump.