These are crazy times. Ireland is the long-life meat sandwiched between bonkers Brexit in Britain and the lunacy of the Trump presidency in the US. But the good news is that we are more than holding our own. It is at times like these, of incredible strife, that it’s worth taking a step back, looking around you, and taking stock of how you’re doing.
The Brexit vote for Britain to leave the EU took place in June of 2016 and five months later, in November, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. We’ve had it on every side ever since; nothing but trouble for two and a half years. It has required deft handling: copious glad-handing, cleverly written speeches, heavy dollops of pragmatism,and plenty of patience.
But we’ve done it.
In the time since both those momentous events, we’ve done considerable self-examination, and we have not been criticised from outside, nor should we have been. Needless to say, this excludes criticism from UK Brexiteer politicians, because to pay heed to them is a fool’s errand.
In the space of a week, we have had visits from two men whose very presence on our native soil should stick in the national craw. In both cases, that of US vice-president, Mike Pence, and UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the trips had the potential to go seriously wrong, but did not.
Just three months ago, we had Pence’s boss, Donald Trump.
The visit of the US president was long-threatened, and seasoned diplomats and politicians here were quaking in their boots that we would be caught in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
That did not happen.
That was actually the third time that our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had met with Mr Trump and emerged unscathed.
Yes, there was the embarrassing episode last year, on their second meeting, when it was revealed that Leo, while tourism minister, some years before, had rung Clare County Council on Trump’s behalf, regarding planning permission for windfarms that were to be built near his Doonbeg golf resort.
That did show a lapse of judgement from Varadkar, but only to a domestic audience, nothing that would make a headline anywhere else.
Leo can justifiably consider himself a Trump veteran now. He is in a position to give some quiet words of unofficial advice to other world leaders, who may not have ever met the US president and who should be rightly nervous at the prospect.
Being gracious to Trump’s deputy, Mike Pence, with his odious right-wing ideologies, must have been a tough ask for the Taoiseach, but he did it. Even when Pence suddenly stuck the boot in on Brexit and the EU, and sought “respect for the UK’s sovereignty”, Leo didn’t flinch.
Maintaining a courteous demeanour may not have seemed so remarkable a few short years ago, but the crowd in the US and the UK have torn up the rule book that used to so rigidly dictate behaviour on official visits.
Despite the provocations, we stuck with old-fashioned good manners.
The rest of Pence’s ‘Emerald Isle’ shtick was just that and when it came to the real political business, the US, under Trump, was bound to side strongly with the UK regarding Brexit.
This was no huge surprise, given that position had already been well-flagged, similarly to how they have highlighted our significant trade surplus with the US. But the wider point is that we are still held in good stead by the US. Our Taoiseach will still be heading off to Washington in March for St Patrick’s Day.
There are many people, myself included, who baulk at the idea of entertaining Trump in any fashion.
However, when you have madness to the geographical east and west of you, it is wise to be firm in your dealings, but also awake to your own reality. So far, trying to keep the neighbours inside the circle of friendship has been the best policy.
On Monday, Boris Johnson turned up at Government Buildings, as slippery a customer as you’ll have the misfortune to come across.
Once again, our man Varadkar did us proud, not only pointing out the plain facts, but managing to beautifully and pointedly drop a classical reference into the conversation, in mentioning Herculean tasks and Athena.
Varadkar is the common factor in smoothly handling these state visits. He has had the able assistance of Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, but it is the Taoiseach who gets thrown in at the diplomatic deep end.
He also managed a pretty neat turn with his speech during the visit of Pope Francis last year, maintaining that fine line between firmly making his point and remaining courteous and welcoming.
We got great feedback on our standing with our EU friends this week, with the news that Phil Hogan has been appointed trade commissioner.
It was a clear expression of solidarity with Ireland over Brexit, as well as a reflection of the solid reputation the former Fine Gael minister has built up for himself in Brussels.
And the opposition parties here should be commended for supporting the Government’s stance on Brexit and for being careful not to undermine it in a way that would give an impression that we are not united in our approach.
Of course, there has been political gain, especially for Fianna Fáil. But there has also been common sense, with the politicians knowing they have the backing, largely, of the public.
Of course we are sick to the back teeth of it all, wishing we never had to hear the word Brexit again, but we should take cognisance of our own level-headedness in this very difficult scenario.
There’s quite a bit to go yet and it’s impossible to predict the outcome, but we can only hope that we get the Brexit that we deserve.