It seems somehow fitting that Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s week-long US St Patrick’s Day lap of honour should start with presidential election controversy, the plight of immigrants, and outspoken comments by a man who now has nothing to lose.
On the first stop of his packed five-city schedule, Mr Kenny warmed up for Thursday’s meeting with US President Donald Trump by being key note speaker at a series of events in Philadelphia.
He focused attention on issues which carry the risk of dividing the nation. A referendum on allowing Irish citizens living abroad voting rights is now on the cards, and could take place as soon as next year.
Up to 50,000 Irish immigrants — although, notably, not millions of their counterparts from Mexico and other countries facing Mr Trump’s ire — living illegally in the US must be protected from a severe tightening of already strict US immigration laws, he said.
The Catholic church should “get on with” coughing up the hundreds of millions of euro it still owes clerical abuse victims and “measure up to the responsibilities they accepted”.
And this was day one.
Unlike in previous St Patrick’s Day visits, Mr Kenny appeared to be setting the tone for what is to come over the next five days in a bid to, if not repair his deeply damaged legacy, then at least try to get a few matters close to his heart over the line before he goes.
The traditional pageantry of US St Patrick’s Day trips is still there, as witnessed by hundreds of revelers who attended the 247th parade in Philadelphia yesterday, and the annual solemn references to the past equally acknowledged by the famine memorial speech yesterday.
However, given the long shadow still hanging over the US due to the fallout from last November’s shock election of Mr Trump, there is a clearly different tone framing the expected images of the week. Having narrowly survived a bungled coup last month, Mr Kenny knows he is on borrowed time and — while it is far from unlikely that he will try to extend it for as long as possible — it shows.
With little to lose as he takes what is expected to be his final lap of honour in a week that due to Brexit, Mr Trump’s travel ban, the illegal Irish situation, and the ongoing clerical abuse scandal, the Taoiseach cannot this time simply hide behind the pageantry and shamrocks.
For once, the annual St Patrick’s Day visit may result in political remarks of real weight.
Controversial, and in tune with the new atmosphere of political division in the US, but given the time we are in, perhaps necessary too.
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