WASHINGTON - While shamrocks and smiles typically define the Irish prime minister’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, with President Donald Trump the celebration could turn more serious.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has signaled that he will use the meeting, scheduled for Thursday, one day before St. Patrick’s Day, to talk about Brexit and Trump’s immigration policies. Kenny, who labeled Trump’s language “dangerous” during the campaign, has said it is important to keep the standing date, which some critics have suggested he should cancel.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Kenny said, “European leaders need to be over here talking to Republicans, Democrats and the administration about what membership of the European Union means and the relationship that it can have with as powerful an entity as the United States.”
Earlier this year, Trump said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union would “end up being a great thing” and predicted the bloc would continue to break apart. The comments echoed Trump’s rhetoric during his presidential campaign.
Kenny will be the first European Union politician to meet with Trump after British Prime Minister Theresa May. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was scheduled to come to the White House Tuesday, but that visit was moved back to Friday because of the snow.
Kenny also plans to push Trump on his plans for Irish people living in the country illegally.
“We will of course raise with Congress and with President Trump himself that the necessary work will be done for our undocumented to be allowed to come in from the cold, feel the warmth of this great country and relieve the burden of having to live in that limbo land,” Kenny said at a dinner in Washington Wednesday night.
Trump ran on a promise to curtail illegal immigration. His revised travel ban, affecting travelers from six Muslim-majority nations, was set to go effect Thursday before it was put on hold Wednesday by a federal judge in Hawaii.
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, said this meeting is more serious than in past years largely because of the fallout from Brexit, which is raising concerns about Ireland’s economic prospects and the future for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
“You add all this up and this has become a much more substantive meeting,” he said.
Kenny spokesman Feargal Purcell said Kenny wants to discuss ways to find “positive outcomes” for an estimated 50,000 Irish people in the country illegally, and he will “outline the positive engagement there can be between Europe and the United States, especially in a post Brexit context.”
An Irish tradition
The St. Patrick’s Day White House event dates back to the 1950s and has become an important standing engagement for Ireland, which has strong emotional and ancestral ties to the United States. The prime minister is set to have a one-on-one meeting with Trump Thursday, as well as attend a luncheon at the Capitol and an evening reception at the White House.
Traditionally, the prime minister presents the president with a bowl of shamrocks to mark the occasion.
Last year, Kenny was greeted warmly by a green tie-wearing President Barack Obama, who gave an affectionate speech, calling it one of his favorite events of the year, because “I get to welcome my people.”
According to Census data, 32.7 million United States residents claimed Irish ancestry in 2015, making it the second most commonly cited European ancestry, following German. Trump earlier this month proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month, as the president does every year.
Pressure to cancel
This may be the last year Kenny, Ireland’s leader since 2011, makes the White House pilgrimage on behalf of Ireland. Kenny, who has faced pressure from party colleagues to resign over a stumbling response to a police scandal, has said he will address his political future when he returns from America.
Some political critics in Ireland called on Kenny to cancel this year’s meeting and a number of petition campaigns urged a boycott, including one from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an Irish American. But The Irish Times editorialized in favor of attending, saying, “no matter how gratifying to our sense of moral superiority, a boycott will be seen as a lost opportunity for face time with the world’s most important leader.”
Kenny has to “walk a tightrope,” said Henry Farrell, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Farrell said Kenny “does not want to be seen as too close to Trump or to be identified with Trump and the same time he wants to preserve a relationship with a guy who is going to be president of the United States” for the next four years.