Pat Leahy: Reflections on the Taoiseach’s Covid-hit week in Washington

No Oval Office meeting, but Martin used trip to clearly position Ireland with the West

Covid disasters apart, and no doubt it doesn’t feel like it if you are stuck in self-isolation, but the week in Washington was successful for the Taoiseach and the country.

People felt sorry for Micheál Martin when a positive Covid test nixed his Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden and the subsequent St Patrick's Day hooleys.

Even Mary Lou McDonald – also in Washington, and very much presenting herself as the leader of the Opposition and so the potential next taoiseach – was tweeting him sympathy and good wishes. With Martin due to vacate the Taoiseach's Office at the end of this year, it's hard to imagine that there will be another opportunity for him to bump fists in the White House.

So the Taoiseach's disappointment is understandable, even if he bore up manfully: 'It's not the end of the world,' he said. For the rest of us, however, it is neither here nor there: what matters are the results that he can achieve

Despite a hectic schedule of meetings, media interviews (including with the editorial board of the Washington Post), round tables and social events, Martin was clearly enjoying himself in the sunshine in Washington. Taoisigh always do. They are feted and fluffed for a week in what is, after all, the world capital of politics and treated with a deference that is not always, shall we say, accorded them at home. And they are celebrated by the awesome political machine that is Irish America. It is not for nothing that the Washington trip is regarded by the Irish political class as one of the highlights of the Taoiseach’s year.

The envy with which the whole St Patrick’s Day boondoggle is viewed by other countries, competitors for influence and favour with the Americans, only heightens the Gaelic delight. Nor does British jealousy diminish it. Remember, politics in all its forms is a fundamentally human endeavour.

Every year, when March rolls around, the same dreary arguments about sending Ministers all over the world are rehearsed; every year politicians of all parties come to the same conclusion – St Patrick’s Day offers an unbuyable opportunity to project Irish soft power and influence.

Nowhere is this truer than it is in Washington, from where I write this. The avenues here are lined with the embassies of all the nations of the earth. And every single one of them would give a generation of their first born for the opportunity and access enjoyed here by the Irish Taoiseach.

So the Taoiseach’s disappointment is understandable, even if he bore up manfully: “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. For the rest of us, however, it is neither here nor there: what matters are the results that he can achieve. Decent progress was reported this week.

On Thursday, as Martin Wall reported, Senate majority whip Dick Durbin, chair of Senate judiciary committee and senator Pat Toomey, ranking member of the Senate banking committee, introduced bipartisan legislation which could lead to visas for 5,000 more Irish people every year.

As ever, there were pledges galore to defend the Belfast Agreement and support the cause of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. This is not merely a matter of supportive words. Time and time again, the United States has intervened in the North, sometimes crucially. From the visa granted to Gerry Adams to help him sell the ceasefires to the IRA's American supporters, to the patient hand-holding of the parties by senator George Mitchell when push came to shove in 1998, while Bill Clinton worked the phones in the White House, to the economic and social programmes the US has funded in the North – US interest in Ireland has yielded concrete benefits for Irish people, North and South, in their daily lives. And that's before you even consider the economic dividends.

If you think all this has nothing to do with green ties and bowls of shamrock in Washington, you need to revisit your understanding of how the worlds of politics and diplomacy work.

In this struggle between two world views, between democracies and autocracies, Ireland is very clearly on one side – with the democracies, with the West, with the European Union, and with (if not in) Nato

The Taoiseach also used this week to clearly position Ireland in the camp of the liberal, democratic, free-trading western states in a struggle that Biden suggests has relevance and impact far beyond the borders of Ukraine. If Martin is trying to edge Ireland away from the understanding that many people have of our traditional neutrality (and I think he is), he is doing this slowly and carefully and he said nothing in Washington to alarm the many people who are extremely nervous about any such move. Even Biden referenced Ireland's neutrality approvingly.

While speaking to the Taoiseach, the president also gave a fascinating insight into his analysis of the moment the world now finds itself in. In a window to a frank conversation between the two most powerful people in the world, Biden also described the view of the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. Here is what Biden said in full:

“I think we’re at an inflection point in history. I mean this sincerely – it occurs every several generations. I think we’re in a genuine struggle between autocracies and democracies, and whether or not democracies can be sustained. I’m going to be speaking with President Xi tomorrow and he’ll remind me that I told him – he remembers every damn thing I’ve said. But all kidding aside, we’ve talked about the idea, he does not believe that democracies can be sustained in the 21st century. Because things move so rapidly, technology is changing so much, democracies don’t have time to arrive at consensus. That’s why autocracies will succeed, [Xi believes].”

In this struggle between two world views, between democracies and autocracies, Ireland is very clearly on one side – with the democracies, with the West, with the European Union, and with (if not in) Nato. For all the too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral in Washington this week, that was the important message that Martin brought to Washington: we know you're on our side – and we're on your side.