The Irish Times view on Varadkar’s task in Washington: a balance of diplomacy

Striking the right tone with Trump will be critical to getting a full appreciation of the Irish position

March 15th, 2018: Speaking at the annual St Patrick’s Day reception at the White House, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says the Irish Government will continue to work with the Trump Administration to find a solution for the undocumented Irish in the US, adding that the Government is "ready to do a deal".

 

This year’s St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar takes place at a critical time for this country. With Brexit looming it is vital the Irish position on the Border backstop is explained fully to all of the power brokers in the United States.

President Trump has never made any secret of his dislike for the European Union and his sympathy for Britain’s Brexiteers, so the Taoiseach will face an uphill battle trying to explain why Ireland, with the full backing of the EU, is taking such a firm stance on the border issue.

It is important that all of those in senior positions in Washington understand the intrinsic link between the backstop and the peace process. Whether Trump can be persuaded to grasp it may be open to question but it certainly should have resonance with leading politicians of both parties on Capitol Hill, given their strong support for the peace process down the years.

Anticipating how Trump will react to any situation is impossible. Despite the president’s vocal support for Brexit he has not followed up with an offer of a favourable trade deal for the UK. The British are still pinning their hopes on a good post-Brexit free trade deal but hard-headed calculation rather than sentiment is likely to guide US policy.

Another issue which the Taoiseach will have to raise with a reluctant president is the vexed question of immigration. Plans for a visa deal specifically for Ireland fell though at the final hurdle in recent times partly due to objections from Democrats over its exclusive nature.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presents US president Donald Trump with a bowl of shamrock as Melania Trump looks on during the annual presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC n 2018. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presents US president Donald Trump with a bowl of shamrock as Melania Trump looks on during the annual presentation ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, in 2018. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Attempting to persuade the US president to go along with a wider, more comprehensive immigration deal will not be easy but it is a task Varadkar will have to attempt. This is an issue he will also have to take up with leading politicians on Capitol Hill if there is going to be any chance of dealing with problems faced by the undocumented Irish in the United States.

Striking the right tone with Trump will be critical to getting a full appreciation of the Irish position. Finding a way to have an amicable exchange while staking out a firm position will pose a really serious challenge for Varadkar.

In his first White House meeting last year he went overboard in trying to ingratiate himself with the president.

While there is no percentage in going to the other extreme and taking a confrontational line that will only get Trump’s back up, Varadkar will have to be more steely this time around.

He would do well to try and emulate the performance of his predecessor Enda Kenny who, two years ago, managed to find the perfect pitch, delivering a robust message on immigration while maintaining a cordial and friendly manner. The Taoiseach has his work cut out for him.

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