Oliver Callan: Of course Kenny should meet Trump

It might be trendy to join the condemnation but the sensible approach is to wait and see

Donald Trump's controversial executive order restricting travel to the United States caused a heated debate in Dáil Eireann, with Enda Kenny forced to reply. Video: Oireachtas TV


Donald Trump’s White House is the focal point of the world’s attention now and its interactions with other nations will shape the future of the western world for a generation. His dealings with the media, the business community and his own government are going to influence how each of these institutions will be viewed years from now. Ireland has been offered access to this pivotal moment in history, a rare opportunity to play a part in its outcome.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny must visit Trump in Washington next month or he would certainly undo an important diplomatic tradition dating back to 1952. It is absurd to claim that a leader being respectfully received by an American president represents that nation’s endorsement of their host’s policies. No such claim was made when former president Mary McAleese led a trade mission to China or when President Michael D Higgins visited the leaders of Ethiopia, where journalists are regularly jailed.

The US is, and remains, a democracy, despite the ridiculous hysteria since Trump’s arrival in office. The protests and media condemnation are similar to those against George W Bush’s murderous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you put the reasons for the anti-Trump campaign against those two wars, they seem frothy and effete. How quickly the world loses perspective.

Trump is dutifully acting on promises he made to the 63 million people who voted for him. More importantly, he now represents all Americans, including those who protest against him with the protection of the same democratic order that put him in office.

Refusing the annual St Patrick’s day invite to the White House would be a purely symbolic and futile exercise. Like say, protesting at an airport with signs that read “No Muslim Ban”. Firstly, Trump doesn’t live in an airport. Secondly, it isn’t a Muslim ban. He banned all citizens, regardless of their religion, from seven out of 50 Muslim countries.

The ban is harsh and dramatic, but is a much lesser version of what he promised in the campaign, which was in fact a total Muslim ban for an unspecified period. The temporary ban is in place only until his pledged “extreme vetting” procedure is up and running. The move may be xenophobic, but has been enacted democratically, a concept that is alien to many of the affected countries.

Leaky border

The Irish know better than most that the US has a leaky border that needs to be secured. You can arrive on a three-month visa posing as a tourist excited to explore the quarries and building sites of Pittsburgh but stay long enough to have a twang that makes you sound like Dáithí Ó Sé doing a Michael Flatley impression.

The Taoiseach should visit Trump with confidence and respectfully express our feelings about torture and human rights. Representing a country with a population the same size as Kentucky’s, Kenny has no right to storm into the Oval Office demanding the president undoes or refuses to implement the promises that got him elected.

None of those calling for the Taoiseach to boycott the visit complained when someone they liked occupied the White House, even though their attitude to Ireland wasn’t much different. Barack Obama did not provide an amnesty for undocumented Irish, he continued to use Shannon’s civilian airport for US military purposes and excoriated American firms avoiding tax in Ireland.

The White House visit symbolises our relationship with America since independence, and it has been a subservient one. It was once a valuable channel for the peace process and enticing US businesses to Ireland, but that dynamic has changed. Still, we might actually pluck up the courage again some day to ask for something in return for our service to the US, and we need to keep our toe in the door until then. If Kenny refused to go just to appease a group of unfocused protesters, he would lose that opportunity for more able future leaders. Perhaps Trump, a proponent of Brexit and critic of the EU, could actually be a vital ally in Ireland’s fight for special treatment in the Brexit talks. That depends on whether Kenny can get along with the president, which he must try to, despite his foolish criticism of him last year.

Messy hodgepodge

The protest movement against the new president is caught up in a noisy moment with no perspective. The recent Women’s March wasn’t a new feminist movement, but a messy hodgepodge of pro-Clinton, race and LGBT rights, climate action and pro-abortion activists.

Much of the sentiment against Trump is based on ignorant comments he made before the election campaign, some going back 12 years. As president he should only be judged on his long-term actions in office. Traditionally, presidents are first reviewed after 100 days. Trump had been reviewed and panned hundreds of times before his first week. Who remembers Obama’s 100 day review? It seems irrelevant now, since he spent over 300 days of his presidency playing golf.

Trump is not going to be half as good as he says he will be. But he won’t be half as bad as they think he’ll be. It might feel good to be part of the popular trend and howl at the problem, but the only sensible approach is to wait and see. That’s what German chancellor Angela Merkel, that last symbol of dignity and restraint in our noisy political world, has chosen to do. As protesters bleated beyond reason around the world last week, Merkel calmly explained the Geneva Convention to him over the phone. Sorry Hillary superfans, but I’m with her.

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