You may not remember this, but you left a message on my phone once, to thank me. I was, I have to say, surprised to get it.
I had written a column here in the middle of the heave against you, back in the day before you became Taoiseach. You had taken a battering in the opinion polls and some of your closest colleagues were planning to get rid of you. The piece I wrote here described the move as madness, and basically said that all of Fine Gael’s energy should be devoted to getting rid of the then government — already in the throes of one of the worst political nightmares of our time.
I wrote it because I believed it, not for any other reason. I don’t carry a torch for Fine Gael, as you know, and I don’t agree with many of the choices you’ve made in government. But I’ve always respected the fact that you took it on, and that you’ve seen our country through one of the worst crises in our history.
You’ve shown leadership at other times too, often to the surprise of many. I still remember that speech you made in the Dáil on the publication of the Cloyne Report. You weren’t Taoiseach long at the time, and you were addressing a major cover-up of child abuse within one of the Cork diocese. And you were speaking as a practising Catholic when you said: “The rape and the torture of children were downplayed or managed to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, its standing, and its reputation. Far from listening to evidence of humiliation and betrayal with St Benedict’s “ear of the heart”, the Vatican’s reaction was to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer.”
You described the position of the Church as calculated and withering. I remember how profoundly shocked some of its apologists were at the time, and how they seized on an inaccuracy in the speech to try to downplay its importance.
But that speech was a turning point for many people in Ireland, a moment, in the midst of the shame of the Cloyne report itself, when they could believe that the Irish state was determined to be a part of this abuse no longer.
And there were other turning points. In the rapid news cycle we live in, people forget easily. But it was you and your government that made it possible for Ireland to become the first country in the world to decide in favour of same-sex marriage by popular vote. We haven’t even reached the third anniversary of that extraordinary event yet, and already it seems a long time ago.
So, Taoiseach, I do honestly believe — and I’ve written this before — that when history comes to be written, you’ll emerge with a pretty decent track record. And in that track record will be a succession of events where you chose to fight rather than go under, where you chose honesty and respect over authoritarianism, where you led and facilitated open, honest, life-changing and inclusive decisions.
We need you to do it again. We need you to think long and hard about the damage Donald Trump is doing. I heard Brendan Howlin on radio on Sunday calling on you not to go to Washington to see President Trump on St Patrick’s Day. I suspect he’s right, but I don’t believe you should even wait until then. We — and maybe more than we — need you to stand up now.
You should be writing to the American President right now, making it absolutely clear that his blanket ban on immigration is utterly unacceptable. It’s inhumane, it’s indecent, and it flies in the face of everything the United States and the world is supposed to stand for.
Some leaders have already responded. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for example, instantly tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”
But there is an imminent danger that this arbitrary ban will be imposed on people in Dublin or Shannon, because of their nationality or religion. You have to make it clear to the American President that Ireland will not stand for that, and that we too will provide sanctuary to any refugee who is prevented from travelling to America by US officials in Ireland.
You have to be heard, Taoiseach. This is not one of those situations where we use the St Patrick’s Day access to the White House for our own commercial reasons, and agree to pay the price of staying silent. We may well be at a transformative moment, and it’s unthinkable that we would hand over a bowl of shamrock to this dangerous, out of control man and pretend to be grateful for his hospitality.
I know there are those who are advising you that there’s a diplomatic way, and that trade and economic imperatives make it mandatory that you go. You’ll be advised that a communique will be issued after whatever meeting you have with the President making it clear that you raised human rights issues with the administration.
But this is not a man who does communiques, or respects anyone’s views but his own. One of the most striking pieces I’ve read about Trump recently was written by a man call Eliot Cohen. And it was striking because Eliot Cohen is what they used to call a neocon. Deeply conservative, he served George W Bush. He was a strong advocate of the invasion of Iraq, and an early promoter of regime change.
Last week he wrote that the Trump presidency is “one of those clarifying moments in American history”. From the conservative tradition to which he belongs, he called on all Americans to “dedicate themselves to restoring the qualities upon which this republic, like all republics depends” — respect for the truth, respect for the law, open-mindedness. He predicted that Donald Trump, because of his character and temperament, would do untold damage.
Taoiseach, you are in a unique, some would say invidious position. There are many leaders around the world who can express views, who can articulate some of the disgust at what this man has already done. There are few enough who will be given an opportunity to do it to his face.
Taoiseach, if you go to Washington in March, it must be to represent us. But more than that, you must represent a world that believes in human rights, that believes in supporting those who flee from war or persecution, that believes there is no place for racism or xenophobia in democratic policy-making.
You have to confront a bully, calmly and openly, and you have to tell him that he does not have allies for the policies he’s hell-bent on pursuing. If any other message comes out of the trip, you won’t be forgiven for going.
You’ve stood up for people’s rights before, Taoiseach, even at times when it probably wasn’t too comfortable for you. In considering whether to go or not to go to the White House, that has to be the defining question. Not trade, or commerce or tourism this time. But democracy.