Opinion: visits by heads of governments and states to Ireland have always generated interest among the public in Irish foreign policy
Controversy over Donald Trump's forthcoming Irish visit raises the question as to how the Irish state should receive the president of the United States. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, pointed to recent history and visits by American heads of state since Ronald Reagan to highlight the close and important relationship between the two countries and the approach his government would take to any stay in Ireland by Trump.
While acknowledging the opposition that exists to Trump, Varadkar’s preference, as with the visit by Pope Francis in August 2018, was understandably for any protests to be moderate and peaceful. Visits and relations with different heads of states and governments since independence have illustrated not only the priorities of the then Irish government, but also how these have at times diverged from sections of the Irish public.
Following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Irish government’s main concern was with forging an identity that was separate to that of Britain. But the reality of the continuing constitutional link and a close economic relationship with the United Kingdom meant it was difficult for the government to pursue an independent foreign policy or to support the issues it had before the establishment of the state. In 1930, for example, the Irish state refused to receive India’s Mahatma Gandhi, who was campaigning for Indian independence, least such a visit damage relations with Britain in advance of the critical Imperial Conference later that year.
From RTÉ Archives, Éamon de Valera announces that the Irish Free State would be neutral if war broke out in 1939
While the Second World War and the Irish policy of neutrality proved that the state had by that stage become completely independent, it only underlined the continued difficulties of striking a balance between pursuing a policy that was different to that of Britain but remaining on good relations with them and the US. Because of Éamon de Valera’s policy of benevolent neutrality to the Allies, Ireland managed to escape relatively unscathed from the Second World War, but appeared to undo much of its good fortune just as the war was coming to an end.
After the death of Adolf Hitler, de Valera paid a visit to Dr Eduard Hempel, the German minister in Dublin, to express his condolences. Unsurprisingly, this gave rise to severe criticism, particularly in the US, but also provoked a strong reaction from the British prime minister, Winston Churchill. To de Valera’s mind, especially given that the Dáil had adjourned only a couple of weeks earlier following the death of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, not to offer condolences (like, for example, other neutrals Switzerland and Sweden) would have been illogical and contrary to the dictates of neutrality.
This points to one of de Valera’s greatest legacies. Where he could lead Ireland through challenging times perhaps better than anyone (as seen by the war and in his celebrated response to Churchill), he left others to decide what neutrality and independence actually meant.
From RTÉ Archives, Éamon de Valera replies to Winston Churchill’s criticism of Ireland’s policy of neutrality throughout the Second World War
It was during the immediate post-war period that the Irish state defined the parameters of its foreign policy. In many ways, state visits by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1949, the Ghanian Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah in 1960, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco in 1961 and finally, US president John F. Kennedy in 1963 reflected the choices Ireland had made. While Nehru and Nkrumah’s references to shared histories and praise for the Irish struggle for independence can be placed alongside Kelly’s and Kennedy’s nostalgia for their ancestral home, the significance of the latter’s visit was that it was the first by a sitting American president and reflected Ireland’s proximity to the western world.
Not only was it very popular and, as with the others, passed without diplomatic or security incident, the Kennedy visit pointed to how Ireland had moved away from neutrality and expressions of independence at the United Nations, views which had been at variance to those held by the United States. Especially under Seán Lemass’ premiership, Ireland adopted a broadly western position at the UN. With its application for membership of the European Economic Community in 1961, the state recognised its interdependence with the US and Europe.
From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' footage of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco arriving in Dublin in 1961
Meetings in 1965 between Lemass and Terence O’Neill, the Northern Ireland prime minister, and the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of the same year underlined the extent to which foreign policy had during the post-war period become interlinked with economic policy. In this context, membership of the EEC from 1973 and the visits of American presidents Richard Nixon in 1970, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1995, 1998 and 2000, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2011 strengthened the existing cultural and economic ties with the US and Europe, reflecting how Ireland had moved beyond a dependence on Britain.
Visits by different heads of governments and states from the 1960s generated a greater interest among the public in Irish foreign policy. Unlike under de Valera, who was both Taoiseach and Minister for External Affairs, governments were increasingly willing to engage with civil society organisations. A desire to influence the nature of the foreign policy of Ireland as well as that of other countries, most notably the US, lay behind the dissent which progressively became a greater feature of visits by foreign dignitaries.
Early examples included Maoist students who targeted the King of Belgium with anti-imperial protests in 1968. In 1970, US president Richard Nixon was subjected to anti-Vietnam demonstrations and had eggs thrown at his car by activist and feminist Máirín de Burca during his visit.
From RTÉ Archives, footage of Richard Nixon's visit to Ireland in 1970
Later visits by Reagan and Bush provoked the greatest negativity. A coalition of organisations and individuals came together in 1984 to object to Reagan's policy, particularly in relation to Central America. Bush's stay in Ireland in 2004 was the occasion for thousands to protest against the Iraq war.
The opposition to Reagan was particularly notable for being the first to garner such diverse groups, utilise unusual tactics and to generate considerable publicity. It included as many as 27 different groups including the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Union of Students in Ireland, the religious sisters for Justice and individuals such as Bishop Eamon Casey, the current President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins and the future judge, Catherine McGuinness. The coalition marched, boycotted events and held a "de-conferring" ceremony at University College Galway (now NUI Galway), where some of those who had received honorary doctorates handed theirs back to the "Acting Chancellor", socialist republican and writer Peadar O’Donnell, in protest at Reagan receiving an honorary doctorate in laws from the university.
From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' report on a demonstration in Dublin against the visit of Ronald Reagan to Ireland in 1984
While the Irish government raised concerns around Reagan’s policy in Central America, the fact that Reagan was easily re-elected as president later that year raises doubts as to the effectiveness of the protests. How representative they were of the general public is another question, with the majority of the public supportive of the visit. Furthermore, many of the demonstrators also hoped that good relations with the US would continue to exist. Certainly, Reagan spoke of the need for tolerance and reconciliation in Northern Ireland during his visit and fulfilled the hopes the Irish government had for his stay.
Notwithstanding this, the protests were significant in raising awareness of international issues in Ireland and of bringing a number of groups together, such as the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement, which had been active since the 1960s and were part of a wider movement internationally. In that context, the anti Reagan campaign was the logical continuation of the protests against the King of Belgium and Nixon. It also indicated the extent to which there was an awareness of and engagement with international issues in Ireland, which has only increased in the following decades.
Statements from the Taoiseach illustrate that he is only too aware of the public’s interest in foreign affairs and in particular its view of the current American administration. As with past governments, he is likely to discuss trade, Northern Ireland and other issues of benefit to Ireland with the visiting president, while downplaying the differences and seeking to manage any protests that occur. In that context, the lessons of previous visits by foreign dignitaries, particularly that of Reagan, is to acknowledge different viewpoints while not straying too far from the public’s view in welcoming Trump or any other head of state to Ireland.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ