herald

Friday 21 September 2018

Golf gaffe will come back to haunt Leo

Trump and Leo. Photo: Reuters
Trump and Leo. Photo: Reuters

Leo Varadkar knows what it's like to stare down the barrel of a gun. He visited the Texas School Book Depository this week and looked out of a sixth-floor window from which Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK in 1963.

Perhaps it crossed Leo's mind that the assassination of Donald Trump's character might be the only way his St Patrick's Day trip to America would please some critics back home.

In the end, Leo did a pretty good job of shooting only one person. Himself. In the foot.

Speaking at a lunch on Capitol Hill, the Taoiseach casually revealed that four years ago he intervened over a proposed wind farm near Trump's golf course at Doonbeg, Co Clare.

He seemed to think everyone would regard the episode as highly amusing, mentioning that when Trump's call first came through to his office, he assumed it was "a p**s-take".

The personal history of Leo and Donald (right) broke no laws, and may not be a massive deal in itself, but on a day that the Taoiseach must have been dreaming about for years, the optics can only be described as truly awful.

It's not much good spending €5m on a PR unit if you go and spoil it all by innocently boasting about the time you took a phone call from a guy who is arguably the most unpopular man in the world.

Rightly or wrongly, Leo's gaffe may end up as the one moment from his first US visit that voters actually remember. It fits in all too neatly with the "posh boy" label that opposition leaders have been trying so hard to hang around his neck.

In sporting terms, it was a classic example of an unforced error - and will almost certainly haunt him for weeks, if not months, to come.

Up until that cringeworthy moment, things seemed to be going reasonably well for the Taoiseach, who knew he had a tough act to follow. Remember, Enda Kenny did us proud last year with his inspiring lecture to Trump about the importance of helping undocumented Irish immigrants.

Leo apparently decided he could not improve on this and made an equally worthy speech on Wednesday night, pointing out how his own Indian heritage makes him an Irish version of the "faltering" American dream.

When Leo finally entered the Oval Office, it became clear that he was keen not to offend his host in any way. Only 24 hours earlier, he said he never played golf and would not be interested in challenging the president to a game in Doonbeg.

Dreaming

However, when Trump himself suggested exactly that, Leo meekly replied: "I'm always willing to learn - you can take me for a few rounds."

On a more serious level, there was no real evidence that Ireland takes up much space in Trump's head. He called the Irish "truly wonderful people" and said he might come here before his re-election campaign in 2020. Then again, he told Enda Kenny much the same thing last year.

As for the thorny issue of Brexit and the Irish border, his only comment was the less-than-earth-shattering observation: "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

All this needs to be kept in perspective. Since Monday, Trump has sacked his Secretary of State, launched a global trade war and announced that he will hold a historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

When he retired to bed last night with his usual cheeseburger, the chances are that he dreamt about far more pressing matters than keeping the Taoiseach happy.

Some of the week's other events have also been beyond Leo's control.

It was reportedly US officials who decided that the media should be banned from his meeting today with the ultra-conservative vice-president, Mike Pence, presumably in case they asked awkward questions about the Taoiseach's sexuality.

We can only hope Pence does not try out the so-called gay conversion therapy he is rumoured to believe in, especially as our own parliament has just introduced legislation to ban this truly disgusting practice.

When Leo was able to dictate the narrative this week, he did just fine. He reminded us that US-Irish relations did not begin with Donald Trump when he visited the Choctaw Nation, a Native American tribe who donated money to Ireland during the Great Famine of 1847.

As a feelgood story, this must have made Leo's spin doctors giddy with delight, even if he did refuse to follow Eamon de Valera's example and put on the headdress.

Those PR men and women could now be forgiven for wondering why they bother. Leo clearly went to Washington looking for a political low-score draw. Now he may not even get that.

If only he had done the sensible thing back in 2014 and told his secretary to say: "Sorry, Donald, Leo's gone for lunch."

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