Biden to Taoiseach: Who says we want you, anyway?

A lovely, neat little bow to stick on top of the entirely stupid row about whether Mr. Martin should go to Washington: They might not even want him:

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this evening that she has a “special place in my heart for the Irish” but she could not confirm whether an event would take place.

Psaki was speaking in response to a question from a US reporter asked on behalf of RTÉ Washington correspondent Brian O’Donovan.

Ireland, of course, is not the only country with Covid, and certainly not the only country where the public might frown on politicians yukking it up with Guinness and Shamrocks while they’re effectively banned from celebrating themselves. While it’s true that the White House part of the annual trip usually consists of a 15 minute meet and greet with the President, the much more significant ceremonies usually take place up on Capitol Hill, with a big dinner and get together. Does the US Congress really want to be seen to be holding lavish St. Patrick’s Day lunches at the moment?

In any case: The whole thing is vastly overblown. The meeting with Biden is a 15 minute courtesy. For all that it gets endlessly talked up – (mainly, it should be said, by Irish journalists who get to go and have their pictures taken behind the White House podium, and then make those pictures their social media profiles for the next six months) – you can count on one hand the number of major diplomatic victories Ireland has achieved via the 10 minutes in the Oval Office.

To the extent that it is any use, it’s probably much more valuable in terms of building relationships with legislators in Congress, than it is with the White House.

To be fair to Mr. Martin, his own position on the matter is entirely defensible. If he’s invited, he should, of course, go. It’s work, not play. There’s no reason, for example, why he should not also attend the next EU summit.

The only reason this is controversial, in fact, is that the average Irish punter is much more jealous of a trip to Washington than they are of a trip to Brussels. We like to think of going to Brussels as work, and going to Washington as a holiday, for our Taoiseach. That’s wrong.

Turning down the invitation would be perfectly understandable. But it would also be unnecessary. Biden himself has already been vaccinated for Covid. Senior Cabinet Ministers in Ireland are regularly tested. Nobody seriously believes – or at least, nobody smart seriously believes – that the White House meeting could turn into a super spreader event.

The argument is entirely about setting an example.

But setting an example of what? Travel is still permitted, you’ll recall, for essential business purposes. If somebody from Facebook can fly to and from Dublin to hold a meeting about KPI’s in the EMEA business, then why on earth can’t the Taoiseach avail of that law to go to Washington to hold a meeting about Brexit, or whatever? If all travel was banned, then it might be a different story. But the proposed trip, if it happens, falls inside what’s already allowed.

In any case, it doesn’t really matter. What the trip really provides, of course, is an opportunity for Irish journalists and broadcasters to pontificate endlessly about the Hiberno-American relationship, and the “strong ties” between Dublin and Washington. The position you take on this trip, as an Irish commentator, TD, or journalist, is much more about establishing your loyalty to the establishment view of Ireland than it is about anything else. If you’re a lefty rebel, then you’re totally against the trip, because the subtext is that you don’t much like America anyway.

If, on the other hand, you’re a Fianna Fáiler or Fine Gaeler in good standing, then you’re all for the trip, with the subtext being how grown up you are, and how much you care about the national interest.

All of which is why the absolute funniest outcome would be for Joe Biden to say “actually, we don’t want you this year, see you in 2022”. Mainly, of course, because some columnist somewhere, short of something to write, will decide to blame it all on those Irish people who opposed the trip to begin with.

There are times, in this country, where citizenship feels like you’re watching an ongoing sitcom. This is one such situation.

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