Head2Head: Should Enda Kenny visit Donald Trump?

Shauna Dillane and Rory O’Sullivan go head-to-head on the topic of the Taoiseach’s annual St.Patrick’s Day visit to the White House; should the visit be cancelled as a mark of protest against Trump or used to Ireland’s political advantage?

Illustration: Jenny Corcoran

As of February the 9th, over 38,000 people had signed a petition entitled “Shamrock for Trump: Not in my name”, calling for Taoiseach Enda Kenny to boycott his meeting with Donald Trump in the White House during the annual St Patrick’s Day visit. Stating that this historic meeting is an important means of maintaining historically strong Irish–American relations, the Taoiseach has confirmed his intentions to meet with President Trump in spite of the mounting pressure to call off his visit. Should we really just bite our tongues for the sake of diplomacy and do as the Taoiseach proposes, or would a boycott be a powerful expression of dissent towards the controversial policies that Trump has adopted in previous weeks?

Rory O’Sullivan: Yes

Either you care about the economic argument or you don’t. People elect politicians to do what they don’t have time to do so that they are looked after, so that they have money, a stable economy, and jobs. When companies leave and they lose those jobs, when prices go up, they blame them.

This is why when Enda Kenny has gone to Washington in the past number of years, he has done far more than meet Barack Obama. He and many people around him have worked hard to meet as many people as possible, and to promote Ireland as a place to visit, invest in, and do business with. In 2015, 27 Cabinet members visited different cities around the world to promote Ireland abroad. St. Patrick’s Day puts Ireland front-and-centre all over the world. Free advertising is rare, and a politician cannot afford to squander it.

What’s in it for Ireland?

“Free advertising is rare, and a politician cannot afford to squander it.”

The visit means that Enda Kenny will meet Donald Trump in person. Many may wish it was otherwise, but Trump’s decisions will have a large impact on Ireland and the Irish. Our special relationship benefits Irish people, who, more than most other countries, can trade with and travel to the United States, and whose livelihoods will be affected if Trump’s economic nationalism causes him to reject Ireland. Throughout his campaign Trump has been scathing of American companies that set up and pay taxes abroad, while simultaneously signalling an interest in bilateral trade agreements with Western countries; Ireland’s economy depends on us hitting one side of that coin. Enda Kenny is also responsible for the millions of Irish immigrants, documented and undocumented, in the United States: by refusing to speak to Trump, Kenny would abandon the undocumented Irish, and leave them voiceless and uncertain.

Ireland’s vital interests are at stake here. Anyone who thinks they know what Trump is going to do, or that Kenny will definitely have no influence, knows something that the rest of the world does not. Trump’s ignorance, combined with his caprice, leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre. From the government’s point of view, this decision is a no-brainer: a principled stand would win plaudits from some, alienate others and help no one. It would cause them to abandon those for whom they are responsible, and to whom they are accountable.

None of this is in any doubt: the people who oppose Kenny’s visit skirt over his political duties. At some point, they argue, the economics and politics of the situation, and the well-being of the Irish in the United States, should be eclipsed by some greater force of human rights, in recognition of which Kenny should stay at home. This argument is difficult because it is vague, but we can sidestep it by pointing out that the Trump government is still far from being in the league of other governments for whom this kind of thing is suggested. The United States is not yet Saudi Arabia; it is not yet Turkey or Russia; it is a democratic country, where people can protest bad policies and judiciaries can block them. Trump’s America is still America: it is still a place where there is equality before the law, and where, more than in most other places, people do not live in fear.

A principled stand

“[…] a principled stand would win plaudits from some, alienate others and help no one.”

This creation of the other, we are sweepingly told, is how all of the worst tyrannies start. Even if this were true — and it is manifestly not true of the Communists or the Nazis, or most others, who began with far more wars and violent suppressions — many more countries than tyrannies create others: the United States, Britain, and Ireland have all otherised groups of people without destroying their democracies. The assumption that everything is going to get worse is just assumption; no one can possibly know exactly how Trump will be. This does not make Trump good at all — he is terrible — but he is not Hitler.

When discussing a principled stand, it is worth asking if it will do any good. Even the United States, back when its President was concerned with this kind of thing, would rarely close relations so dramatically. It outrages leaders with big egos, who see it as an attack on sovereignty; it causes them to entrench, to imbue such policies with an ever-increasing nationalism. They then isolate themselves from the world so that few from outside can ever properly talk to them and get things done. A principled stand would do little more than make us all feel good about ourselves, and there is plenty of reason to believe it could isolate Trump further. There is no hope of guilting Trump into giving up: it is far more likely that we would just cause outrage and scandal.

Of course, none of this should much concern us: we are so small and Trump is so resistant to criticism that our message would have almost no impact beyond itself, and the Facebook newsfeeds it appears on. The deeper question is when, if the day ever comes, we should choose resistance over bargaining. The easiest answer seems to be resistance if it achieves more good for more people. As long as there are people like the undocumented Irish, like the unemployed, who need politicians to look out for them because no one else will, and as long as we remain powerless over who Trump tries to ban from the United States; this question has an obvious answer. Choose good sense and improving lives.

In the age of social media bubbles, of listicles and anger, we are quick to choose principle without thinking: everything around us seems to push us towards it. But we must recognise the difference between anger and urgency. If we want our principles to have meaning, we must know how and when to use them.

Shauna Dillane: No

Boycott – Listen to your public, Enda!

“The small gift of a bowl of shamrocks could represent a very powerful and potentially damaging political message.”

Firstly, the Taoiseach should listen to the protests of the Irish public. He has been elected by the Irish people to represent us, but by ignoring the will of the public who clearly expressed their disapproval via the #NotInMyName campaign, it is very clear that he will not be speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of Irish people. Based on protests both on the day of Trump’s inauguration and during the Women’s March the following day, it is evident that the new American president faces strong opposition in Ireland. The Irish public finds fault not only with the discriminatory policies that he has introduced during his short time in office, but also with what he represents: white, male, sexist, racist supremacy. As a country, we do not and cannot publicly approve President Trump.

Sending a message

“Kenny could create considerable difficulties for himself and the Irish nation by inadvertently signalling his support for Trump’s controversial mandate.”

We must ask ourselves what message this visit would convey to the world. If the meeting continues as planned, he will only be the second European leader to have met the new president. To many, this fact alone would thus signal strong Irish approval of Trump, despite the Taoiseach’s assurances that he will verbally express his objection towards the restrictive, discriminatory policies that Trump has adopted.

Would a boycott result in the diplomatic nightmare that some forecast? Would President Trump be deeply concerned if Mr Kenny cancelled his trip? To put it simply, it is quite unlikely. If anything, by attending the meeting and humouring President Trump, the Taoiseach could create considerable difficulties for himself and the Irish nation by inadvertently signalling his support for Trump’s controversial mandate. The small gift of a bowl of shamrocks could represent a very powerful and potentially damaging political message.

On the topic of Trump’s policies, a further question can be raised vis-à-vis their negative potential for the Irish population. Of course, many have protested Trump’s “Muslim ban”, but we must also be aware of other economic policies that Trump intends to introduce that will surely weaken our ability to work, travel, and live in America. During his election campaign Trump pledged his intention to abolish the J1 visa, which would come as a major loss to thousands of Irish students who wish to work in America during the summer. Moreover, Trump is set to implement similar measures to clamp down on the H1B and L1 work visa programmes in a bid to secure jobs for Americans, thus eliminating many opportunities for young Irish graduates in the future. As a man that possesses unshakable conviction, Trump will certainly ignore any calls made by our Taoiseach if he were to attempt to negotiate during his visit. Rather, Enda Kenny would send a much more effective message to Trump if he boycotted this visit, just as President Trump wishes to boycott Irish workers.

Domino effect

“By boycotting this visit, Enda Kenny could potentially create a positive domino effect across Europe.”

By boycotting this visit, Enda Kenny could potentially create a positive domino effect across Europe. There has been somewhat similar call, for instance, to block Trump’s state visit to the UK, with over 1 million signatures on a #NotInMyName petition. Of course, this would not represent a call to arms against President Trump. Trump has been democratically elected, and while some may not approve of his actions and behaviour, we must accept the democratic process. However, a unified Europe can simply show that it will not accept discriminatory, racist or sexist policies and attitudes. If Trump’s policies escalate, we cannot simply bite our tongues. These attitudes could easily seep into Irish society given America’s cultural influence.

In short, we must not solely consider what message the Taoiseach would be sending if he were to boycott his St Patrick’s Day visit to Trump, but more importantly the potential damage to Ireland’s image should Mr Kenny meet with President Trump. Trump may seek to “Make America Great Again”, but at what, or rather whose expense? Should we simply appease Trump by engaging in a diplomatic tradition? What message would we send if we were to bite our tongues despite Trump’s inflammatory and controversial policies? As John Berger stated, the aim of a boycott is “not to reject, but to bring about change”.

Crucially, Mr Kenny must now defend his leadership, facing a motion of no confidence this coming week if he fails to indicate when he will step down due to the fallout from the Garda whistleblower affair. While the government survived a confidence vote in the Dáil on Wednesday the 15th, senior Fine Gael figures confirmed that the Taoiseach’s continued leadership is doubtful. Ministers Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are seen to be the leading contenders to succeed Mr Kenny, which raises the question as to their positions vis-a-vis the St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington. It may be likely that Mr Kenny would still travel to meet President Trump even if his leadership has come under question before then; yet what would occur should Mr Varadkar or Mr Coveney assume his position in the coming weeks? Would either leader boycott or would they engage with the new American President?

This question remains to be answered, but as Mr Varadkar himself stated, this visit cannot be solely about “smiles and shamrocks”.