The Irish should be grateful for Obama’s warm reception, writes Eoin Martin, because it was more than the English got…
IT’S ALWAYS GOOD to get one over on the ould enemy, especially when the country’s in need of some good news. It was gratifying to hear then that Brian Cowen’s first visit as Taoiseach to the White House was a considerable success, in contrast with Gordon Brown’s first meeting with President Obama a few weeks ago.
Despite some problems with an autocue whereby the Taoiseach accidentally started reading his host’s speech, the large all-Ireland delegation seems to have been very warmly received in Washington during the annual Saint Patrick’s Day festivities. The fountain outside sprayed dyed green water while indoors, political heavyweights including the Vice President, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor held a series of meetings with the Irish.
The British Prime Minister must be wondering what on earth he did to deserve his cold reception. First he was denied the traditional honour of a joint press conference. Then, having gone to the trouble of bringing Barack Obama a carved pen holder made from the wood of the warship HMS Gannet, the sistership of HMS Resolute from whose wood the Oval Office desk is made, he got a DVD box set of classic American movies that can be bought in shops in return. The reaction of the British press ranged from fury in the Daily Mail to the Guardian reading deeply into hidden messages in the plots of each of the movies about Tony Blair’s cosy relationship with George Bush.
Certainly Anglo-American relations seem a little more chilled of late. During his election campaign, Barack Obama referred to David Cameron, the leader of the British Conservative party as a ‘lightweight’. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he doesn’t feel there’s anything special about the “special relationship” with Britain having snubbed both the current and likely future Prime Minister.
Undoubtedly President Obama is seeking to differentiate his foreign policy from that of his none too illustrious predecessor. Especially as he steps up his Afghanistan campaign however, it seems foolhardy to alienate America’s only consistently loyal and combat-ready ally. In this context, Irish diplomats can be grateful that in spite of the atrocious press we’ve earned ourselves through disastrous economic mismanagement in the last few months, everyone still loves the Irish.
The significance of the annual shamrock ceremony at the White House has been much commented upon in the last week. It could not have come at a more vital time for Ireland, both to give a fillip of national morale and more importantly to spread the word that we’re not a complete basket case.
“the fact that Taoisigh have a de facto entitlement to this sort of access on an annual basis is enviable to every premier in the world bar none”
Brian Cowen was only the third head of government to be received by the Obamas in Washington and the fact that Taoisigh have a de facto entitlement to this sort of access on an annual basis is enviable to every premier in the world bar none. While unlike Anglo-American relations, the Irish in Washington will not have been concerned with saving the world, there will none the less have been vital national interests at stake.
It goes without saying that the United States is a crucial source of inward investment for Ireland and has also traditionally been a key market for Irish goods. More recently, American relations with the EU as a whole have impacted on Irish trade, emigration and travel, UN involvement and so on. Where Ireland does not want to go is back to the 1950s where we were simultaneously isolated from both Europe and the US and pretty much everyone else.
From America’s point of view, Ireland represents a gateway into Europe both politically and commercially. The view that we are friends with everyone is attractive to American businesses. The important thing is not to become too much of a thorn in America’s side, either by being viewed as a selfish tax haven or as we were branded by the New York Times, “the Wild West of European finance”.
Ireland’s housing bubble and shoddy financial regulation bare a little bit too much similarity to elements of the Bush regime. Thankfully, President Obama seems to have let us get away with it. We have now had the chance to show ourselves firstly as a country very much in line with Obama’s progressive way of thinking in terms of peaceful diplomacy and secondly, by virtue Brian Cowen’s reasonably bountiful business breakfast in New York, ready to catch the bounce of the US recovery when it comes.
President Obama seemed to genuinely enjoy his day of Irish culture even if it didn’t seem like he could actually picture Moneygall, County Offaly in his mind’s eye. While the new incumbent of the White House seemed determined to share in our national holiday and have as much fun as possible, undoubtedly he is canny enough to realise the real importance of Irish connections with the US.
The President mentioned the recent tragic events in Northern Ireland and will be well aware of the importance of peace on the island both psychologically to Irish Americans and commercially to American businesses. His choice of Dan Rooney, the owner of the American football side, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the new ambassador to Ireland would seem to reflect this given his particular interest in the peace process.
Obama will also know that for all the outward paddywhackery associated with Saint Patrick’s day, Irish diplomats and politicians such as John Bruton, the EU ambassador to the US are highly influential and respected both in Washington and Europe. The Irish-American relationship is very much a working partnership though one perhaps with cultural roots unlike those of any other two countries.
All in all, March 17th saw a good day’s work done in Washington. The worst thing that could have happened was that the first American President to have a Facebook account would have rejected the Taoiseach’s friend request. Thankfully he probably thinks his own country is in as much of as mess as ours, but Biffo being a cute ‘hoor’, was careful not to put him right.