We could waste a lot of time speculating on the real purpose behind the Biden visit. Nevertheless it is worth reflecting on the nature and impact of his trip to Ireland and especially how the Irish establishment reacted to it. Ostensibly the US president was coming here to celebrate the so-called achievements of the Good Friday Agreement. However and in spite of the fact that that particular accord related directly to conflict resolution in the six counties, Big Joe spent only a few hours in the North before rapidly heading south.
Admittedly the Stormont Assembly is not up and running. It is not obvious though, why that should have prevented him from spending equal time north and south. The narrative that the USA had played a huge role in what has been described by his friend Senator George Mitchell as a model with international significance should surely merit more than a whistle-stop tour.
Why not a quick visit-cum-photo opportunity to the Giant’s Causeway or a boat on Lough Erne or some other equally frivolous but good-natured gesture? A veteran politician must surely have recognised the value of that type of simple exercise. By raising the region’s profile and ingratiating himself with the northerners, his influence could have been so much more significant.
In contrast to his almost dismissive treatment of the North, Biden spent his time across the border in relaxed and convivial mode. Of course he delivered a formal address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas but apart from that, it was almost as if he was on holiday. Particularly so since he was accompanied by several members of his family. There was a pleasant journey to Carlingford to meet distant relatives followed by a dander through Dundalk. Later there was a moving pilgrimage to Knock and a poignant meeting with a priest who had anointed his late son. Then there was the “take me home to Mayo” outing in front of Ballina Cathedral. All so endearing to an uncritical media and public.
Adding to the overall merriment was a charming little gaffe when somehow he got confused between the New Zealand rugby team and the thankfully now disbanded RIC Special Reserve, a.k.a. the Black & Tans. An easy enough mistake to make for an 80-year-old Yank. Especially so for someone who clearly must, you might be led to believe, have some acquaintance with Irish history causing such a slip of the tongue. No wonder the British media was so scathing. Fortunately for him though, annoying the Brits still pleases a certain section of Irish society.
Once in the Republic, he received a royal welcome despite the protests of a gallant few. Lost among all the “Welcome home Joe” tomfoolery was the stark fact that here was the man who presides over the world’s largest imperialist power being treated as if he was a favourite uncle returning from a lengthy exile. Not that Biden completely neglected his duty to the empire he leads as he reminded audiences of the US contribution to war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless and notwithstanding criticism of US foreign policy made by a handful of left-wing TDs and a small number of protesters on the streets, President Biden returned to Washington having created an Irish government approved feel-good factor. Ireland can now bask in the knowledge that it has earned a pass grade from the White House.
The smug feeling of self satisfaction was captured nicely in an interview former Taoiseach Enda Kenny did with RTÉ. The presidential visit, he said, had solidified our relationship with the United States, helping maintain the favourable opinion multi-national corporations have of this country. A situation summed up, according to Enda, by president of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The lady recently commended Ireland as a shining example of how a small country can prosper within a larger union. Ursula didn’t mention, by the way, our housing and homeless crisis, wretched health service or gross inequality.
However, let’s face, this small island has a cosier relationship with the world’s largest power bloc than another small island, that one over in the Caribbean.The country that has caused its enormous neighbour such annoyance, it has been blockaded for the past 60 years.
Joe’s visit has assuaged, one would imagine, some nagging doubts the White House may have had about a similar threat emerging in Ireland. The Yanks have long admired Ireland’s legislative commitment to free-market neoliberalism. There was some concern, however, that the worsening of the aforementioned housing crisis, two-tier health service and systemic inequality all exacerbated by inflation, could undermine Irish people’s belief in the American way of doing business.
While the coalition parties greeted the visitor with slavish devotion, a question mark surrounded the attitude of the Republic’s largest opposition party. A series of opinion polls over the past year have consistently shown significant approval for the allegedly left-leaning Sinn Féin. Might that party, if in office, prove difficult for a US administration to deal with?
Well, there is no longer much room for worry. Mary Lou and Michelle seemingly have no intention of rocking the boat. When offered the option to follow a lead set by People Before Profit and boycott Biden’s Oireachtas address in protest at his foreign policy, Sinn Féin refused and sat obediently throughout his speech.
In light of the party’s abject refusal to censure the US administration, the Pentagon can rest easier. It seems clear that if in office, Sinn Féin will not deny US troops landing-rights at Shannon. By thus tolerating one flagrant violation of Irish neutrality they might well be persuaded to concede on other areas.
Away from the Dáil, the response to the presidential visit was equally uncritical. On the contrary, it was bordering on the cringeworthy. The Irish media reported Biden’s every move with RTÉ providing wall-to-wall coverage. Unsurprisingly as a result of such intense publicity, large and enthusiastic crowds gathered in Ballina to welcome Joe back home.
As mentioned at the outset, it is pointless attempting to guess the rationale underlying the Biden visit. What is obvious, however, is that it has been used by the Irish ruling class to polish its subservient relationship to US-led imperialism. This is dangerous because it facilitates bringing an end to what is left of our neutrality. If not so, then why did Tánaiste Mícheál Martin appoint Louise Richardson, Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, to chair the government’s Consultative Forum on International Security Policy?
Consequently, there is cause for concern but no reason for despair. The Irish bourgeoisie is not as confident as it appears. There is a simmering discontent with conditions in this country that will not be satisfied with royal or presidential visits. It is, nevertheless, imperative that we continue to articulate the only viable alternative to capitalist and imperialistic barbarism: a socialist society.