President George W. Bush is scheduled to make an overnight visit to Ireland this week for a two-hour summit meeting. On Friday, he’ll fly into Shannon, an airport whose use by the American military during the Iraq venture has been highly controversial here. Substantial protests are planned, but the protesters will, of course, be kept far from the president. He won’t even hear their chants. No doubt American television will show the president and his wife surrounded by harp-playing colleens and little girls in ringlets stepdancing in a medieval castle — this is an election year, after all, and there is an Irish-American electorate. In fact, the president and the Irish won’t encounter each other at all. The loss is ours, but it is America’s, too.
Bush is coming to a country that has been passionately pro-American since America took in our people after the Great Famine in the 1840s. Presidential visits have been a gift from that diaspora.
John F. Kennedy came and assuaged some of the pain of all the farewells in our history. Richard Nixon came; I remember running almost three miles to the obscure graveyard in which an ancestor of his had been providentially discovered, beside me a couple carrying a plump 3-year-old between them, hoping to show the child an actual U.S. president. We didn’t make it, but we cheered when we saw the presidential helicopter take off over the bog.
Ronald Reagan came and protesters against American actions in Central America landed in jail, but on the entertainment side, he was the perfect partner in genial, Oirish leprechaunery. It was also believed that he leaned on Margaret Thatcher to bring her to negotiations with us on the future of Northern Ireland.
That’s what has mattered most in modern Ireland’s relationship with America. Its friendliness to us has often been the power behind our dealings with Britain.
The Clinton administration and both the Clintons went further. They put a lot of time and effort into installing a political structure in Northern Ireland that will work, however long it may be delayed by local malice. When Bill Clinton visited the republic the place was brought to a standstill. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. If Clinton came back today, we’d find some way, even in the post-Sept. 11 world, to welcome him.
But even in that world, is security the only consideration keeping Bush and the Irish people apart?
When Mikhail Gorbachev, at the height of his promise, stopped over in Shannon for just a couple of hours, there was a fiesta. His wife, Raisa, was taken to an outdoor folk museum behind what was meant to be impermeable security, but there was such a welter of children up trees, people holding out daffodils, boys balancing on walls and general happy mayhem that security became extremely flexible. True feeling finds ways to express itself.
How can there be so little enthusiasm for welcoming Bush in as pro-American a country as exists on the face of the earth? Our intelligentsia is pro-American. American popular culture, far from being resisted as it is elsewhere in Europe, has been a precious modernizing influence on the grim patriarchy that dominated Ireland until recent times. we all have friends and relations in the United States. Ireland shut down more completely than any other country in the world — schools, pubs, business, transport, everything — on its day of mourning for the Sept. 11 attacks.
But nations on the periphery watch the center more keenly than the center realizes. The vacuum where our enthusiasm should be is our response to the perception — the fear — that this administration is indifferent to any world view but its own: that it doesn’t care whether a little place like this loves it or not.
There is another twist: We Irish, in our quarrel with Britain, have relied on American power, and that implicates us in how that power is exercised. The images from the Abu Ghraib prison were especially shocking here.
We took the British Army to the European Court of Human Rights for using techniques of interrogation in Northern Ireland much less extreme than were used in Abu Ghraib. The British techniques were ruled inhuman and degrading.
And Iraq is only the most lurid in a sequence of isolationist initiatives — the abrupt rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the hostility to any international court of justice and, above all, the disrespect this administration has shown to the United Nations.
Not that anyone has unqualified respect for the United Nations. But small nations, in particular, have to rely on international bodies, and the United Nations, for all its flaws, is the international body we’ve got. We take it seriously and we strongly support it. Irish troops are serving with UN missions in places that could do with the money and attention Iraq is getting, like Liberia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Congo and the Western Sahara.
The hardheaded proconsuls in Washington know that we, though by no means the victims we once were — we have a stunningly successful economy — do not matter in terms of realpolitik. Ireland’s population is a little less than that of Atlanta.
But the attitudinal change I see here is part of global politics all the same. Americans who work or play outside their own country will have felt already, I’m sure, that the Bush presidency has changed how the world looks at America. For them — for ordinary Americans — the reception they get abroad at this time of profound difficulty should be warmer than ever.
But for the present administration — and a 1,000-strong entourage will be accompanying Bush on his visit — my welcome flag is furled. It was such fun and such an honor, the first four times a president came here. But in the bitter words of a poet: ‘‘Never bright, confident morning again.’’
Nuala O’Faolain, a former columnist for The Irish Times, is author of ‘‘Almost There,’’ a memoir.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune