Dan Mulhall served a long apprenticeship before landing the job of Irish Ambassador to the United States.
In the early 1990's he was the Brussels-based press officer, attached to Ireland’s diplomatic representation to the European Union, nicknamed 'The Perm Rep'.
Dan had to deal with the small number of journalists in Belgium, working for Irish newspapers and RTÉ and with the international press corps. He was on first-name terms with the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph who hadn’t a great reputation then as an early riser - a character called Boris Johnson.
Each April, June and October Ministerial meetings would switch from Brussels to Luxembourg. It was one of those EU deals to spread the gigs and the employment spin-off to the tiny member state down the motorway.
One Sunday evening Dan invited the Irish hacks to his hotel room in Luxembourg to brief them on the issues likely to surface during the ministerial meeting the following morning. He had to leave abruptly to make it to the local airport where the government jet with Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerard Collins was due to arrive.
The hacks enjoyed the banter with Dan and he took his work and himself very seriously. Before vacating Dan’s hotel room, they turned on the television and fixed it to ensure an adult channel would greet the diplomat on his return.
One of the most challenging episodes during Dan’s Brussels years was the Structural Funds package, negotiated by Albert Reynolds at the 1992 Edinburgh Summit. The promised money became the dowry that wooed Dick Spring and the Labour Party into an unlikely coalition with Fianna Fáil.
But was the deal worth €6,€7 or €8 billion? Jacques Delors, the European Commission president, got worked up about some of Dublin’s claims. Tanaiste Dick Spring was iffy about being asked to travel over to Brussels to smooth out some of the details. His discomfort seemed to increase when he had link up with Padraig Flynn, then Ireland’s member of the European Commission, during some of the haggling sessions.
For his media dealings Dan Mulhall developed a graphic illustration, worthy of Pythagoras, to illustrate how the claims made by the Irish government and the clarifications provided by the European Commission could be perfectly reconciled to show both sides were entirely right.
Career moves brought Dan back to Dublin and then to Edinburgh where he opened the first Irish consulate. He was the Irish Ambassador in Kuala Lumpar at the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 where his professionalism shone. He then served as an ambassador in a reunified Germany before switching to the Irish embassy in London.
Dan's friend from UCC days is the poet and writer, Theo Dorgan. He has a deep interest in the work of WB Yeats, he knows the back catalogues of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and he doesn’t need much persuading to sing or recite a poem at social events.
He met his Australian wife, Greta, when she was a young diplomat working in India and the pair have won friends for Ireland and themselves at every stage of their working lives.
In September 2017 Dan transferred to what will be the final posting of his career. After surviving 'adult movie stunts’, structural fund rows and tsunamis, he arrived in Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, to fight the good fight in Trumpland.
Dealing with an enigma
Ireland Inc. struggled in its working relations with The Donald. There was embarrassment legacy around the 2014 footage of Finance Minister Michael Noonan, the harpist and the red carpet and the greeting of the wealthy hotelier and job provider on the Shannon tarmac.
Enda Kenny was in his final stages as Taoiseach when he went to the White House for the Saint Patrick’s Day mullarkey in March 2017. Enda always enjoyed a bit of "To Ra Loo" and would have been comfortable if called upon to provide a rendition of ‘Moonlight on Mayo’ or ‘The Isle of Innisfree.’
His more guarded successor, Leo Varadkar, rightly retained the valuable White House Shamrock ceremony access routine. But the Irish government never managed to make a meaningful personal connection with the US President.
There was a very good reason for this. Donald Trump is a one-off. In modern times, there has never been a US president like him. He breaks all the norms and conventions. He wasn't interested in the emotional bonds between Ireland and the United States.
You couldn’t imagine him quoting Seamus Heaney. He wouldn’t waste time tracking the European as well as the US influences in the Good Friday Agreement.
He is a businessman and deal-maker. He doesn’t see beyond himself. He has the that self-obsession that helps one to successfully front reality tv shows.
In his eyes the Chinese, the EU and, when it suits, the Russians are rival firms. Climate change and the Coronavirus threat are exaggerated. NATO, the UN and the WHO are bad value. Ireland, with its track record of attracting disproportionate amounts of investment by US multinationals, is an irritant.
"In our lifetime will the contest for Taoiseach, British prime minister, French president or German chancellor ever involve a 77-year-old and a 74-year-old?"
The UK exiting the Brussels club offers an opportunity to damage the EU, so at a time when Brussels is struggling, working up a trade deal between Washington and London makes sense.
These are some of the realities that have hovered in the ether since Donald Trump became President.
Making solid contacts with the Trump administration has been a practical challenge for Washington-based diplomats and Irish officials in Dublin during the Trump presidency.
Such relationships are very important because they are the building-blocks of diplomacy. But during this regime presidential advisors often had a short shelf life.
Ambassador Dan Mulhall and his colleagues ducked and dived in the the challenging environment of Trumpland. Their most important work was required in recent months. They went into overdrive after the British government threatened to break international law by resiling from some commitments made in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
They canvassed and gained the support of US Speaker at the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. They got the backing of presidential candidate, Joe Biden. And critically, they bonded with Mick Mulvaney, the recently appointed Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and a former chief of staff to the Trump administration.
The Irish government's successful courtship of that US support reminded Boris Johnson’s government that a hard Brexit could complicate London/Washington relationships, prospective trade deal included.
Will Biden move the dial?
Joe Biden in the White House would enhance rather than reduce the prospect of a Brexit deal. He would bring with him to Washington a team familiar with the norms of diplomacy. If Biden takes over, for Ambassador Dan Mulhall in Washington, the final year of his career should be uber busy but with less of the spikes and uncertainties that characterised the Trump years.
What happens to the serving US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland may be worth watching. Traditionally, regime change means everybody out. But Mick Mulvaney has a genuine interest in Irish issues, a sharp intellect and, unlike many who served Donald Trump, a track record in forming and expressing his views.
He featured as a down-the-line interviewee in BBC’s presidential election coverage on Wednesday morning. He came across as someone who would be delighted to continue making a contribution, if asked. Would President Joe Biden consider keeping him in post, as a bipartisan gesture - or would tribal loyalties kick in?
Bill Clinton became the first serving US President to visit Northern Ireland in 1995. George Bush came. Barrack Obama attended the G8 in Enniskillen. Donald Trump broke the cycle - he didn't make it up to the porous border from Clare.
It’s highly likely that if he becomes president, Joe Biden would revive the practice of coming to the island, south and north. He would be keen to restore the links. The power-sharing administration at Stormont, the DUP included, would quickly latch onto the possibilities of having a powerful friend.
Biden would likely kick-start a new active phase of US-Ireland engagement. Briefings on the history of the peace process would not be required. He understands the significance of Brexit. If the pandemic allows it, the Shamrock event in the White House next March hosted by Biden would be a hot ticket.
But if a Donald Trump defeat would remove an enigmatic factor from Irish-US relations, an important truth of recent days deserves highlighting.
The manner in which the 74-year-old recovered from the Coronavirus, bounded across America, energised supporters and cajoled millions of voters to the polling booths was extraordinary. He made mincemeat of the pollsters and the media. A second time.
He wasn’t interested in us. But we failed to understand him.
The past four years have reminded us that European and US societies are built differently. On issues like social welfare systems, public health care, the cost of education, annual holiday entitlements, right down to the practice and extent of tipping in the hospitality sector, Americans and Europeans are not on the same page.
Bertie Ahern once used the line that at heart he was a socialist. Donald Trump spread the false rumour that Joe Biden was a socialist to make him toxic for huge numbers of Florida voters. In our lifetime will the contest for Taoiseach, British prime minister, French president or German chancellor ever involve a 77-year-old and a 74-year-old?
In a land wary of big government and hostile to career politicians, Donald Trump won the support of many millions, including huge swathes of the marginalised. He confounded so many of us. He is such a determined enigma that it is still not possible to say he is beaten.
Is it outlandish to wonder/or fear if in four years we will be captivated by the sequel - the Return of the Outsider?