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St. Patrick’s Populist Purgatory: Part 1. The Taoiseach, the President and David McWilliams

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Tomorrow, Micheál Martin will zoom to Washington DC to meet President Biden. The Taoiseach has already been armed with guidance, in terms falling somewhere between advice and instructions, from David McWilliams about the use he should make of the meeting.

Writing in The Irish Times of 6 March, Mr. McWilliams suggested:

This Saint Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach should ask US president Joe Biden for help. What about asking him for four million vaccines? In a sign of solidarity with its oldest ally and the homeland of more than 30 million Irish-Americans, the US could exercise its ample soft-power and help a friend in need.

And why should the Taoiseach do that?

We can’t get our hands on enough vaccines via the EU’s centralised scheme, but we have the option to look elsewhere.

Other EU countries, putting the welfare of their citizens first, have moved to secure alternative sources. This week, Denmark and Austria entered a “vaccine alliance” with Israel, undertaking to buy vaccines from there. Poland is in talks with the Chinese government to acquire the Sino vaccine, Hungary and Slovenia are already administering the Sputnik vaccine made in Russia.

US pharma is now in overdrive, “cranking up production at a speed that few thought possible.” The President has promised that there will be enough vaccines available for every American by the end of May and its distribution system is now geared up to administer them. Indeed, 11 days after Mr. McWilliams’ article, President Biden brought forward that target date to the beginning of May.

Ireland is already far behind and likely only to fall further behind unless it acts unilaterally in its own interests as other European countries are already doing.

As one of our diplomatic strategies is to position ourselves… as the bridge between the US and the EU, what better way to evidence that special position than to show the rest of the EU that Ireland can persuade the Americans to help us?

What other country has that much soft-power and, with one of our own in the Oval Office, what better time to test it?

But, alas, though time and tide might be aligned, the iron ready to strike at its hottest, Mr. McWilliams was pessimistic that our soft power would be tested as he suggests.

Could it be that the people making decisions to close society and shutter businesses don’t fully understand what it is like to be self-employed?

Business people… are being ordered to close when there are vaccines out there.


The people making the decisions on the vaccine and its rollout have less “skin in the game”.

And maybe there’s another unworthy “reason” for official hesitancy.

Perhaps… Irish officials think it would not play well in Brussels. They misdiagnose supplication for strength.

Official Ireland wants us to be seen as “good Europeans” at all times. The “best boy in the class” syndrome prevents us from acting in our evident self-interest. It is a problem of lack of self-esteem. It’s not a function of smallness, but confidence.

By contrast:

A small self-assured country like Denmark, knowing it is entirely within its rights to seek alternatives, breaks from the pack and puts its citizens first. Being proactive is not the same as being confrontational, difficult or problematic. It is being sensible, sensitive and caring.

And who could possibly be against being “sensible, sensitive and caring”!

We will reflect on two aspects of Mr. McWilliams’ article; (a) his account of what other EU member states are doing unilaterally to protect their citizens and; (b) his specific suggestion about how Michael Martin should engage with President Biden.

Mr. McWilliams asserts: “Denmark and Austria entered a “vaccine alliance” with Israel, undertaking to buy vaccines from there.” The truth is different.

According to Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a news conference alongside his Danish counterpart, Mette Frederiksen, and Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz in Jerusalem on 4 March, the three countries will launch “a research and development fund” and begin “joint efforts for common production of future vaccines”. Mr. Netanyahu did not specify the size of the fund, when the future generation vaccines would be developed or the production capacity goal.

Technically, Mr. McWilliams’ statement about this alliance is correct, but only in the most contorted Jesuitical sense. In the context of his article, the implication of his claim is that Denmark and Austria have tuned in to an opportunity to snaffle extra vaccines available “here and now”. That is definitely not the case.

Of course, Mr. McWilliams and the “newspaper” that gives him space might say his article is presented clearly as an opinion piece rather than news. So does this really matter? Yes it does, because facts should remain as sacred as commentary should remain free. Mr. McWilliams and The Irish Times present to their readers a supposed “fact” that is patently not so. It is a sign of the times that both are beyond embarrassment, never mind being susceptible to shame.

Mr. McWilliams points out fairly that other EU member states are unilaterally acquiring the Russian (Sputnik) and Chinese (Sinopharm) developed vaccines outside the EU purchase framework. There is a case that Ireland should do likewise, but not an “open and shut” one.

First, these vaccines have not been submitted to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approval process. Second, without such approval, it is unclear whether these vaccines would qualify for any possible EU-wide vaccine passport for cross-border travel. Third, whereas member states have protection against the vendors for any liability arising from the application of EU purchased vaccines, the same might not apply to Sputnik and Sinopharm. Fourth, the force of his point depends on those vaccines being available immediately and in scale were Ireland to order them right now — and that the delays in arrival of EU purchased vaccine supplies are likely to endure longer than currently expected.

All of that is not to “prove” that Ireland should not consider those alternative vaccines, only that it is not as straightforward as Mr. McWilliams implies. Selecting vaccines is not as simple as choosing between boxes of Irish Roses and Quality Street in a supermarket packed with plenty of both.

Moving on to how the Taoiseach should handle the President, like all populists, of which he is certainly one, Mr. McWilliams couches his “proposal” in simple, lofty terms. He doesn’t specify the time frame within which he believes the four million vaccines might be delivered to us. That is a crucial point.

If his suggestion is that Mr. Martin should ask for four million vaccines for delivery “some time”, that doesn’t even rise to being a damp squib. The EU has ordered so many vaccines that enough will be delivered to Ireland “some time” anyway. No, his suggestion merits attention only if he believes Mr. Martin might be able to wangle lots of vaccines for urgent delivery — for the Taoiseach to take home in his virtual suitcase.

Let’s leave to one side the issue of whether the US has large numbers of “spare” vaccines that it could release to other countries. On one hand, the US is unlikely to be willing to divert any vaccines it might use to inoculate its own citizens until that job is done several weeks hence — and it has an export ban in place currently to prevent supply leakage. On that basis, there are no spare vaccines in its locker.

On the other hand, though this was not known when Mr. McWilliams wrote his article, it has 30 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine in storage that will not be used in the US in the near term because that vaccine is still awaiting approval by the US Food & Drugs Administration. So, in theory at least, these could be released to Ireland, Europe or anywhere else.

Accepting then that the US might possibly but not certainly have some “spares” right now, what Mr. McWilliams is suggesting the Taoiseach do is ask for Ireland to get preferential as well as immediate access to a vaccine stream from the US in a context where demand runs ahead of supply almost everywhere in the world; most of the rest of Europe, Canada and Mexico on the US borders, Latin America generally, large parts of Asia and, of course, most parts of Africa where vaccines are as rare as hen’s teeth — even though Ireland’s “difficulty” is only a matter of timing. We will have more than enough vaccines soon anyway. We just don’t have them now.

And that is, supposedly, an entirely reasonable “ask” of President Biden because he is one of our own and Ireland’s historical relationship with the US is unique.

It seems to me that Mr. McWilliams has posed four “asks” of Mr. Martin all rolled up into one. The first is that he gets a “result” in the form of lots of vaccines and increased respect in Brussels. The second is that he “puts it up” to Mr. Biden. “Mr. President, you wear your Irishness on your sleeve. Well, if you want to be a member of the Shamrock Club, there’s a price of admission….” The third is that Mr. Martin should “test” Ireland’s “soft power”. Is it what we supposedly imagine it to be or a fading illusion? Well, now is the time to present that cheque and see if it will cash. And fourth, it’s an opportunity for Mr. Martin to demonstrate whether Ireland is a mouse or an adult nation, whether we are strong or a supplicant, whether we should engage with both US and EU as, dare one say, a sovereign equal, rather than bending our knee and doffing our cap. Have we, at long last, taken our place among the nations of the earth so that Robert Emmett’s epitaph might finally be written.

In the 1980s, I spent almost three years in Ireland’s embassy in Washington DC. Everywhere I went, name recognition of Ireland was strong and only positive. You could see people’s faces light up when you mentioned from whence you came. But affection for Ireland did not run remotely as deep as it ran wide. The brand provided leverage to harness people easily to your cause, but only if they didn’t have to go too far out of their way to assist you or if helping you involved no conflict. Ireland’s influence in the US is more frequently described as “soft” rather than “hard” power because “soft” is precisely what it is.

Of course, it could be said that if you don’t ask at all, you certainly won’t get. And if you do ask, maybe you might.

A common notice in pubs and shops long ago read: “Please do not ask for credit as refusal often offends.” It is generally wiser strategy not to overstretch the capacity and appetite of people who might be willing to go a distance to help you but not to the point of sacrificing their own interests to yours.

However, the truth about Mr. McWilliams’ article is that he is not addressing Mr. Martin at all but his wider readership among whom he expects exist a large number of people who see our leaders and themselves exactly as Mr. McWilliams portrays them and to whom it is advantageous to pander. We, the ordinary people, are lions unfortunate enough to be led by especially spineless as well as incompetent donkeys. We could run the country better, single-handedly, from the comfort of our armchairs, just as Mr. McWilliams could do from the comfort of his journalistic dugout.

And with his derisory dismissal of all in the government apparatus as “Official Ireland”, he plonks himself down firmly among the throngs of those who fall outside that category; the much put upon and unpampered little people with barely an arse to their trousers. Eamon Dunphy used spin a lot of gold for himself by peddling a similar “shtick” of the rebel with many causes; the people’s pundit, while mingling easily and pleasantly among the great and the good.

Mr. McWilliams likes to project himself as a similar piece of grit in the “system”, that the “system” would prefer to silence. But he knows well that there is a place reserved in every decent court for at least one jester and in every decent circus for a performing flea. He is unlikely ever to have to worry about where his next meal will come from.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain


Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.