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St. Patrick’s Populist Purgatory: Part 2 Micheál Martin zooms to Washington

From late 1987 to the end of 1989, I had the privilege of serving in Ireland’s embassy in Washington DC. It is indicative of the relatively subdued state of Irish-US relations at that time that the government representative “covering” Washington for Saint Patrick’s Day in 1988 was Padraig Flynn, then Minister for the Environment. Of his visit, I can remember nothing at all. He might have got a few minutes in the White House to present the bowl of shamrock to President Ronald Reagan, but I couldn’t swear to it.

However, in 1989, our visitor from Dublin was the Taoiseach himself, Charles Haughey. As the most junior diplomat in the embassy, I had the vitally important job on 17 March of getting the bowl of shamrock from the embassy to the White House well ahead of its presentation to the newly installed President Bush.

After my package had been inspected cursorily (times were more relaxed then), I was led through several dark, narrow corridors to a side door to the Oval Office itself. Most new visitors to Washington are struck by how small the White House looks from the outside. Back then at any rate, it was just as poky on the inside. Anyway, I caught only the briefest glimpse of the hub of world power before the bowl was grabbed from me and I was dispatched back down the corridor.

This year, it was settled several weeks before 17 March that Micheál Martin would break with the well established practice of visiting Washington. The programme normally assures quality time not only with the President, but also separately with the Vice-President and senior congressional leaders and, on the side, with heavy hitters in the Irish-American diaspora.

Some especially virtuous voices here suggested that Enda Kenny might demonstrate our repudiation of President Trump by refusing to visit at all or, if he did, that he should give Trump an unvarnished piece of our minds. However, there is normally little dispute that the routine is a great opportunity for Ireland.

Micheál Martin said publicly he would go this year if invited. I would be very surprised if the meeting with the President couldn’t have been conducted in a COVID-safe manner. In normal circumstances, I am also certain that President Biden would have been delighted to receive him.

However, I suspect that President Biden might have been concerned about two points of optics rather than substance. First, and by far the more important, receiving a foreign visitor in person for a ceremonial and symbolic rather than essential purpose could send the wrong message domestically when the President is encouraging scrupulous adherence to COVID safety protocols. Second, more speculatively, the President might have wanted to keep his options open about which foreign leader will have the privilege of being the first visitor to the Biden White House.

Even if the President had indicated his readiness to receive the Taoiseach, there were plenty of voices here in Ireland saying he should not go.

Those calls are properly described as “populist” politics because they tick several boxes characteristic of the genre. These are some of those boxes.

First, there is always a “simple” alternative solution that would be just as effective as the one espoused by conventional wisdom. In this case, our Ambassador in Washington could deliver the shamrock while the Taoiseach and the President hooked up for a chat on Zoom. Job done.

And it could be added that this year’s virtual programme included not only a meeting with the President, but separate discussions with Vice President, Kamala Harris and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi accompanied by other congressional figures. So the normal routine was replicated in substance if not in style.

Second, there is the presentation of one’s position to be so obviously correct as to be beyond challenge. Take this tweet of February from Suzanne Breen, Political Editor with the Belfast Telegraph.

Of all the questions currently gripping Ireland, whether Micheal Martin goes to the White House or not for St. Paddy’s Day is the easiest to answer. It shouldn’t even be up for debate. The optics would be awful & it would have severe consequences for lockdown restrictions compliance.”

Ms. Breen is entitled to her opinion on whether the visit should go ahead and her reasons for it. But her reasons (the optics and consequences for compliance) are merely assertions, not remotely self-evidently true, and very much open to reasonable challenge.

But classifying a position as one that “shouldn’t even be up for debate” raises the bar for any challenge by implying that supporting evidence is merely decorative rather than essential to the merits of the position. So anyone seeking supporting evidence as a condition for agreeing with her is certainly ignorant, probably rude and just wasting everybody’s time.

Third is the unspoken underlying implication that “establishment” politicians are only in the game for themselves. Mr. Martin was keen to go to Washington for either or both of (a) the ego trip of bigging himself up, shooting the breeze with the new Prez; or (b) he loves whizzing around on the government jet and can’t wait to strap himself in before laying into the gin and canapés. A visit would only be a jolly dressed up as work.

Fourth, advocates of Mr. Martin staying at home thereby positioned themselves as being in contrast to Mr. Martin; “non-establishment” if not “anti-establishment” figures on the side only of the people rather than interested in lining their own pockets or massaging their egos. And they conscript “ordinary people” to the cause by implicitly praising the sacrificial diligent observance of lockdown restrictions by such ordinary people in contrast to the profligate disregard of them by the self-indulgent pampered Taoiseach.

Fifth, presenting the shamrock “virtually” over Zoom or getting our local ambassador to do it is a much cheaper way of doing things, thus establishing a neat contrast between their frugal stewardship of public money and Mr. Martin’s apparent treatment of it as a personal expense account.

Sixth, it plays well to those among us who feel fed up, victimised and mistreated by the bleak circumstances of our current lives, which have inclined us more to anger than equanimity. We, the ordinary people, are confined to 5 kilometres from home, cannot fly anywhere even on Ryanair, don’t ever get a free gin and tonic, never mind, play the big shot around Washington. For many, misery shared is misery eased. Keeping Mr. Martin captive at home generates vindictive satisfaction.

But the last relevant feature of populist positions is that, while they might seem superficially sensible, they wilt under any serious scrutiny.

First, let’s reflect a bit on Mr. Martin himself. He served in cabinet for 14 years from 1997 to 2011, the last three as Minister for Foreign Affairs. So, he has already trotted much of the globe, mixed with the great and good abroad and experienced luxury flying, lodging, wining and dining. He was consigned to opposition by the general election of 2011. But, after the 2016 election, he turned down flat Enda Kenny’s invitation for his party to enter coalition government with Fine Gael. So, the argument that Mr. Martin is desperate for the high life of international jet setting that government service might open up to him is not compelling.

Second, there is the notion that a trip to Washington would be only a jolly and not “work” at all. This relies for force on the notion that work and enjoyment are separate and incompatible spheres of human existence. That is certainly true for some of us, but by no means the rule for all. Of the Taoiseach, all that can safely be said is that international travel is part and parcel of the job and something he might or might not enjoy.

Third comes the notion that a “virtual” meeting would be just as good as the real thing. That is just not true. Let’s imagine when the time comes that COVID is firmly consigned to history as surely, eventually, it must be. Certainly, some features of the COVID era will remain. There will be more remote working and virtual connections, work-related and social, than formerly.

But it is hard to imagine either surviving as the sole sensible way of doing things. Or more pertinently, that the COVID era restrictive regimes for key social, collective rituals like graduations, weddings, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries will survive as norms. Virtual meetings might be adequate for strictly transactional purposes and certainly better than no meeting at all. But they are second best to real social interaction for nurturing the positive relationships that are part and parcel of normal human existence — and especially international diplomacy.

Last is the alleged exemplary value of the Taoiseach choosing to stay at home in the interest of promoting observance of COVID restrictions; the claim that he would be showing “leadership” by doing so. That claim relies for any force it might possibly have on the notion that the Taoiseach would be widely perceived to be using his visit to Washington as a paper thin excuse to escape the restrictions himself, like the people arranging dental appointments as fig leaves to cover holidays in Tenerife, serving himself rather than serving a national interest.

No doubt there would be some who would see it like that and who might move the argument on to suggest that the Taoiseach’s travelling constitutes a justification, not merely an excuse, for others to flaunt the restrictions too. But, even though the Taoiseach deprived them of this particular “cover”, does anyone seriously think that people bent on breaking the rules won’t easily latch on to another excuse?

Moreover, by implying that breaches of the regulations by others would be at least “understandable” if he had gone to Washington, Mr. Martin’s critics thus were proffering pre-emptive partial absolution for such breaches. That warrants particular reflection on the critics’ part. Words are not just a sequence of sounds. They are actions. You can’t will the utterance but entirely disown the consequences.

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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.