Unlucky Micheál misses chance to talk to Joe... but begrudgers who opposed his trip were wrong

The Taoiseach's annual visit to Washington on St Patrick's Day has been called off - but had he been invited by the President, he should have ignored the naysayers and gone, says John Dolan in his weekly column
Unlucky Micheál misses chance to talk to Joe... but begrudgers who opposed his trip were wrong

Taioseach Micheal Martin addressing the nation at Government Buildings, Dublin.

YES, I know it isn’t a matter of life and death, as this pandemic has sadly been for so many people around our city and county.

But all the same, I feel a bit sorry for our Taoiseach now he has accepted he will be unable to carry out the traditional trip to the White House on St Patrick’s Day.

After weeks of speculation, it emerged last night that Micheál Martin and U.S President Joe Biden will have to make do with a virtual meeting on March 17, as the risk presented by Covid-19 is just too high.

I’m sure the Corkman would have eagerly pencilled in that date in his diary when he took on the job of Taoiseach, and looked forward to rubbing shoulders with the most powerful person in the world — even more so when Biden beat Donald Trump in the election and proclaimed himself a lover of all things Irish.

Now, it is just another plan that has bitten the dust thanks to this awful virus.

However, I imagine Mr Martin will not be expecting much sympathy from the electorate as he makes do with a Zoom chat with Biden.

It had been clear for some time that the majority of people in this country were staunchly opposed to the Taoiseach travelling across the Atlantic with the bowl of shamrock.

A recent poll by journal.ie found 22,000 of its readers said he should not go to Washington and only 5,000 said he should.

Call it begrudgery. Call it a dislike of our political classes. Or call it the effects of almost 12 months of lockdownitis... but most ordinary men and women were agin such a trip.

Until last night, I felt that both Michéal Martin and his advisors needed to grow a pair, ignore the polls and airwaves and social media ranters, and feel the fear and do it anyway — head off to Washington, assuming they got the invitation from the President.

Because sometimes the public can be wrong, and sometimes politicians have to do stuff that is unpopular.

Our Taoiseach flying to Washington — having first jumped the vaccination queue and taken the jab, I should add — would have been the right and proper thing to do, if Biden had extended the hand of welcome, which I’m sure he would have loved to have done, given his green DNA.

I firmly believed that Michéal should ignore the callers to radio chat shows like Joe Duffy, and talk to Joe... Biden, the most important person in world politics.

Let’s analyse the most common reasons given for the naysayers to have been against this trip.

We’re all in this lockdown together, we were told, and handing over a bowl of shamrock to whomever is President is not an essential reason to break this. Sure, we’d all love to travel and enjoy a trip abroad, but the rules say otherwise, and if our Taoiseach breaks the rules, what sort of example is he setting?

To which the only valid answer is, balderdash.

Any opinion on this must be guided by a simple truism. The person who is elected our Taoiseach is not an ordinary citizen doing an ordinary job.

Being the leader of our country comes with unique responsibilities, privileges, challenges and, yes, perks.

Among them should be the option of moving him — and the whole Cabinet for that matter — up the vaccination queue, since their work is essential.

What kind of curmudgeon could deny that?

And, yes, among the perks should be the opportunity for the Taoiseach to go on his annual visit to the White House on St Patrick’s Day.

This wouldn’t have been for Micheál Martin’s own self-aggrandisement — some kind of ego trip — but for the good of the country.

Being the first world leader to have a personal meeting with Joe Biden would have sent out a tremendous message to the world about little Ireland’s place, and would have been an incredibly important opportunity for Ireland on so many levels.

I would have proclaimed this, even if Donald Trump were still in power, or some run-of-the-mill President at a mundane moment in history.

But this is far from a mundane moment in history, and Joe Biden is no run-of-the-mill President.

He is perhaps the most pro-Irish person to ever occupy the role, he is fresh on the back of a resounding election victory, and so far he has not been able to meet any other world leader of note.

Biden cherishes his Irish roots and it is vital that we court him and take any advantage we can of that bond.

On thorny issues such as Brexit and the Irish border that may be coming down the tracks, he will be a vital ally for Ireland and the European Union.

There are already signs that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reined in his bumptious rhetoric since Biden replaced Trump, and the President’s very presence in the White House may well help smooth out any new issues that crop up.

If Micheál Martin had had the opportunity to meet Biden, he would have struck up a relationship, established a rapport, and invited him back to the auld sod. And a sizeable cohort of people on this small island thought we should look that gift horse in the mouth and gallop away?

Those who thought our Taoiseach could easily do all of that via Zoom or a Google chat from the comfort of his home in Ballinlough — ‘oh please, broadband, don’t fail me now!’ — really do not understand human and political relationships at all and were guilty of putting emotion above reason.

Ah well, the decision has been made for them now, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling a bit sorry for Micheál Martin for missing out on the trip.

Let’s hope it goes ahead next year, before he hands the reins of power back to Leo Varadkar.

During their one phone conversation since Biden was elected, when Mr Martin invited the new President to Ireland, Biden replied: “Just try and keep me out.”

If the same courtesy had been extended to our Taoiseach from the White House, Mr Martin would have been perfectly within his rights to deliver the same response.

And to hell with the begrudgers.

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