We are long familiar with all the bonhomie and backslapping associated with the annual St. Patrick and shamrock celebrations in Washington, D.C.
This year was no different most of the time and on the surface.
But despite the air of celebration there was also an air of a sterner reality in the relationship between the United States and Ireland.
Different presidents have had different ways of presiding over a day that is, to say the least, unique in the nation’s political calendar.
Donald trump, then, has his way. This was Trump’s third St. Patrick’s celebration and he is doubtless more familiar with the rituals as a result.
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But this third year also happened to coincide with the looming mess that is Brexit.
So there was an elephant in the room when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and President Trump sat down to chat and exchange pleasantries.
“Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump yesterday clashed on Brexit, with the U.S. president railing against the EU in a slap-down of the Taoiseach’s remarks on a proposed free trade deal with America,” reported the Irish Independent of the meeting between both leaders in the Oval Office.
“Mr. Trump also used Mr. Varadkar’s visit to the White House yesterday to warn Ireland and the EU the U.S. is ‘going to tariff a lot of their products coming in because the European Union treats us very, very unfairly.’
“The Taoiseach said: ‘Well, we have a different opinion. I regret Brexit’s happening.’”
Varadkar, after the meeting, told reporters that, and referring to the president, “I know he is a supporter of Brexit and I am not.
“What I’ve asked for is an understanding of our situation, particularly when it comes to Northern Ireland and avoiding a hard border and protecting the peace process. He is supportive on that point.”
Meanwhile, the Irish Examiner newspaper ran a story headlined “Leo lectured as Trump meet falls flat.”
The report opened: “Leo Varadkar delivered his own poignant personal message about equality to U.S. leaders but received a firm slap down from President Donald Trump over EU economics and trade policies.”
Added the report: “While Leo Varadkar had crossed the Atlantic in the hope of maybe talking about the Good Friday Agreement, peace in the North and the undocumented Irish in the U.S., there was one subject he just couldn’t get away from: Brexit.
“And with that came a flood of comments from Donald Trump about trade, tariffs, and messy negotiations with the EU that ultimately drove a coach and four through any sense of solidarity.
“This meeting might have been to mark St. Patrick’s Day, with some green and even orange in the room, but suddenly Leo Varadkar had to take a lecture on Brexit and EU trade.”
Of course, there is something in the times that are in it in all of this and Mr. Trump’s style tends to be I’m the boss in the room, you the supplicant, but beyond that – and this is in part a result of Ireland’s growing prominence as an economic entity with significant trade ties to the United States – there was a sense that the shamrock was left wilting in the corner during this 2019 visit and all and sundry were left milling about in the Brexit weeds.
It’s all about business now. The bonhomie and backslapping comes with a price.