Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will face a real test of his political and diplomatic skills today when he meets President Trump for the annual St Patrick’s week presentation of shamrock at the White House. It is important for the Taoiseach to engage as positively as possible with the US president in recognition of the historic ties between the two countries as well as protecting Ireland’s long-term interests.
It is equally important he makes it clear where Ireland stands on a range of issues including immigration, the future of the European Union, international trade and gay rights, on all of which there is a potential gulf between the two men. Former taoiseach Enda Kenny showed in his visit to the White House last year that it is possible to be polite but firm; to recognise the importance of good relations with the US president while not compromising on basic principles. Given the gulf in age and outlook between them, Varadkar faces an even bigger challenge in speaking some unwelcome truths to Trump, while maintaining a cordial atmosphere.
The unpredictable nature of President Trump makes it all the more difficult, as there is no way of judging how he will react to an honestly stated difference of opinion. The manner in which he sacked his secretary of state Rex Tillerson by tweet on Tuesday illustrates just how volatile the president is and how little he cares about diplomatic niceties, never mind simple good manners.
The Taoiseach as the representative of a country whose economy is hugely dependent on US investment cannot afford to be overly provocative but neither can he allow himself to be treated as a supplicant.
One of Varadkar’s great strengths as a politician is his ability to keep his cool, whatever the provocation, and that quality should come to his aid today. His programme during his week-long trip to the US has covered many of the important bases from an Irish point of view. At the start of the visit in Austin, Texas, there was a clear acknowledgement of the importance of US investment in Ireland.
The encounter with the Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma on Monday was a recognition of the problems faced by minority groups in the US as well as a deserved thank you to a persecuted people who astonishingly sent money to help Ireland in its hour of need during the Famine.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday, the Taoiseach made no bones about the fact that as one of the most open, small economies in the world, Ireland is a strong proponent of free trade and free enterprise and, along with our EU partners, would oppose barriers to trade and the imposition of tariffs.
Getting that message across to the US president will be one of the most important and difficult tasks facing the Taoiseach today.