Institutional memory such as this, which carries the wisdom of reflection, is not valued as much as it should be in politics, writes Alison O’Connor.
IT’S a tough station when your neighbours on both sides go crazy, in and around the same time. If you have no choice but to stay put, the sensible option is to make the best of a bad situation, or to develop a defence mechanism where your brain tells you that things are not actually that bad. There are times though, when the screaming insanity of it all hits home with a wallop. This week was one of those.
When I speak of neighbours I mean the UK and the USA, and little ol’ Ireland stuck in between. Whether we look left or right now we witness the kind of craziness we could never have even imagined a few years ago. Who would have predicted it would be going on wholesale both across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic; that we’d have to spend a lot of time pretending — officially at least — that rather than utterly bonkers, dealing with Brexit and Donald Trump was, like, regular stuff.
This was a normal enough week in Washington, just the usual crazy. But somehow the scenes of the official visit of French president Emmanuel Macron to Washington seemed to encapsulate how crazy bananas it really is, but how officially it’s made out like it is not.
There was the hand holding, cheek kissing and other affectionate “gripping” between Trump and Macron, and let’s not forget the grooming; Trump told the assembled media he was removing some dandruff from Macron’s shoulder. Trump clearly needed the human contact given that earlier we saw the pathetic image of him offering his pinkie to his wife Melania and after about four or five attempts by him to connect hands with her, she eventually relented.
It was all cringe inducing to observe. Macron must surely endure and participate through gritted teeth. His schmoozing obviously has some undefinable effect on Trump, but God it’s debasing and painful to watch. Global headlines were torn between the daftness and the seriousness — because even if Trump is crazy, he sits in the Oval Office and is the man with his finger on the nuclear button.
“Cher Donald” was initially subject to the full Gallic charm, although after the initial love in on Wednesday Mr Macron gave his host both barrels in a joint address to Congress with strong messages on climate change, joint support of the Iran nuclear deal, and warning against the Trump brand of (America first) nationalism. The Democrats couldn’t contain their delight.
Back home, on our other side, equally painfully, lie the British and their Brexit plans. It’s mad in a different way, but still mad, and in truth there are many parallels. Not least of these are people in high office saying things that they know to be untrue, but saying them loud and proud and challenging you brazenly, to challenge them. On a day to day basis our Government has to deal with the fallout from this nonsense, and for that, frankly, they deserve much kudos.
I was at a conference this week, organised by the Institute for International and European Affairs on Brexit, Ireland and the future of Europe. On stage for the first session were three former Taoisigh John Bruton, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Between them they held the office of Taoiseach from 1994 up to 2011. Obviously missing was the most recent former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, but it was understandable if he felt it was too soon to be involving himself in such gatherings since anything he might say could be construed as a criticism of his successor.
Anyway it was really interesting to listen to the three, each very thoughtful in their different ways on Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. Institutional memory such as this, which carries the wisdom of reflection, is not valued as much as it should be in politics. The two Fianna Fáilers were generous about the efforts of the current Fine Gael Government to deal with Brexit. Former Fine Gael leader and former ambassador to the EU John Bruton, the first of the three men to become taoiseach in 1994, put the British/Irish relationship in good historical context. “Between 1922 and 1973 no British prime minister ever felt it was worth his while to come to meet his counterpart on this island. This indicated to me an unequal partnership; that all changed when we joined the EU together.” In the EU we were “both members of something bigger than either of us”.
He pointed out how in subsequent years Ireland and Britain had regular high-level contact on EU matters and a good understanding of each other. Bertie Ahern, taoiseach from 1997 to 2008, acknowledged the relationship between the two governments had already suffered, adding with some understatement: “It is a different British government to the one we dealt with down through the years”, not just that the Conservatives are now in power but the “different personalities have certainly made life more complex”. The three wise men were polite, in the main, on the British, saying how important it was for Ireland to maintain a good relationship with Britain post-Brexit. But even in this gathering the frustration was evident.
At one point Bertie Ahern pointed out that what British Brexit secretary David Davis “says on a Monday, is not what he says on a Wednesday”. As it happens on that very day, although we didn’t know it, the Brexit secretary was making a long delayed, but unannounced visit to see the Border.
MEANWHILE Mr Cowen, taoiseach from 2008 to 2011, said he could accept British prime minister Theresa May has difficulties, but wondered aloud how she could say said no British prime minister could accept the backstop agreement, since she had already accepted such an option on December 8 and that had legal standing. The backstop would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and single market post-Brexit. “So this level of inconsistency in terms of the approach doesn’t help to instil confidence that we can get a solution.” However he did think there was “sufficient maturity” on the British and Irish governments to realise the importance of the relationship they have together.
Hmm. There have been far too many days recently where the British side have shown the very opposite of maturity in their dealing with us. When comparing them to Trump we can at least say they don’t bring nuclear weapons into it. But as we sit here — the meat in the sandwich between the two of them — that seems a poor consolation.
Institutional memory such as this, which carries the wisdom of reflection, is not valued as much as it should be in politics
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