I don’t know if Barack Obama and his advisers truly believe in the luck of the Irish, but even if they’re not superstitious, why would they take any chances? When he lands in Ireland next week Obama will join a long list of re-election-minded presidents over the last half-century who decided to take a little time mid-to-late in their first terms to visit the Old Sod. If you’re a politician, it’s the short list of presidents who sought re-election without a visit to Ireland that makes for sobering reading: Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush. LBJ and Ford didn’t come either. Apart from JFK, whose emotional 1963 visit was followed by the worst luck of all in Dallas, the fates have smiled on our visitors: Nixon (1970), Reagan (1984), Clinton (1995) and Dubya (2003 and 2004).
Bush the Younger is the only one of that lot who didn’t do a little sentimental roots-hunting while he was here: as we reported here on CounterPunch, he could barely show his face. For the rest, apparently it’s good news back home to place yourself among the 40 million or so Americans who claim Irish descent. Obama, who like most US presidents with Irish lineage descends from the minority Protestant community, will visit the tiny and deeply nondescript village of Moneygall, Co Offaly, to claim his ancestral shamrock. Reports suggest he’ll have to bring his own beer, however, as the secret service can’t trust anything he might be served here, and are especially suspicious of the deep, dark opacity of a pint of Guinness. Now it has emerged the people of Moneygall (population 298) are kicking up about what looks like being a shortage of access to their presidential visitor: one US official told them if they wanted to see Obama they’d be better off going to Dublin.
In any case, Obama won’t find anything like the magic welcome of the Kennedy and Clinton visits, nor the large, angry protests of the Reagan and Bush visits. (Nixon’s seems to have been low-key: my own emigrant grandfather’s home place of Timahoe, in County Laois, spruced up its pretty village-green for an expected roots-visitation, but then the genealogists clarified out that Nixon’s Quaker Milhouse forebears came from a different Timahoe, in Kildare, little more than a cemetery by 1970.) Kennedy was the first serving US president to visit an independent Ireland, and the first Irish-Catholic president to boot, so that visit is often recalled nostalgically as a coming of age for the Republic. And Clinton, who seemed to become a fixture here in subsequent years, was in 1995 playing what everyone called ‘a crucial role’ in the Northern peace process.
Obama is popular in Ireland but, frankly, he has no reason to be here, and he’s catching us at a bad time. Our economy is destroyed after the bubble years of the Celtic Tiger ? recent statistics revealed that we’re nearing the magic 50 per cent decline in residential-property prices from their peak just four years ago. To add American insult to local injury, an article by economist Morgan Kelly in the Irish Times has just revealed that Obama’s treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, shot down an effort to ease Ireland’s debt burden during negotiations on the Irish bailout last autumn, costing us in the region of ?30 billion. Geithner, unsurprisingly, was more concerned with protecting the interests of international banks than of the Irish people.
But there’s one big reason that Obama’s brief touchdown in Ireland is likely to be anti-climactic. It is probably unusual for US presidents to hear this, but we’ve got a more important visitor in town this week. As the bawdy old Dublin folk song goes: “The queen she came to call on us…” ? the royal visitor arrives six days ahead of Obama, on Tuesday.
It’s not that the old woman known to her subjects as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is especially popular here. On the contrary. Kate Middleton might draw a crowd of celebrity-spotters in Dublin, especially if she brought her sister along, but personal attitudes in Ireland to the British monarch rarely stretch past indifference, and run in the other direction all the way to hatred. Lots of people recall, for example, how the queen decorated British officers involved in the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, though of course, like everything else she does, that was at her government’s behest.
We won’t in any case get the chance to measure her attraction in terms of possible flag-waving citizens out to greet her, because the streets will be closed at every venue she visits. Like George W Bush before her, the queen in the course of four days here won’t be giving face-time to the general public, just to invited guests. Those invitations, vaguely embarrassing to many who have got them, are being hilariously coveted by at least one group of people: the Sunday Independent plastered its front page over the weekend with complaints that a number of prominent pro-British and anti-IRA figures, many of them associated with the newspaper, had not been invited to meet the queen, despite their alleged role in the peace process, of which this visit is viewed as the culmination.
Since the Sunday Independent’s main role in the peace process was an attempt to smother it in its crib in the early 1990s, the complaints have been widely enjoyed as the first thing we’ve had to laugh about in this country for what feels like years.
What everyone seems to agree, even the people who are opposing the visit, is that it is significant, this first visit from a British monarch in 99 years, the first since independence. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has suddenly shifted over the weekend from describing the visit with mildly expressed regret as “premature” to suggesting that it could be a great thing entirely, if she says the right things. Although she will be visiting such iconic nationalist sites as Croke Park and the Garden of Remembrance ? along with the National Stud, which is not a man but a horse-breeding facility ? it doesn’t seem likely that she is going to spend her time in Ireland apologizing for the past and promising Irish national unity in the not-too-distant future. But perhaps Adams has got a diplomatic tip-off to the contrary. In any case, this intervention from Adams may help weaken opposition to the visit from republicans inside and outside Sinn Fein, though dissident paramilitaries have warned that “the queen of England is wanted for war crimes in Ireland and not wanted on Irish soil.”
President Mary McAleese, whose term finishes this year, keeps saying Ireland is ‘ready’ for this visit, but militant quotes like that, and the insane levels of security that they spawn, do suggest otherwise. Around Dublin the disruption is beginning to breed serious anger. On Monday children were having their bags searched as they crossed police barricades to reach their school on Parnell Square, even though the queen won’t visit there until Tuesday. (The school will be closed entirely on Tuesday.) Teachers were warned by police to prevent the children from looking out the school windows, lest they be mistaken for potential snipers. As one mother said to me: “We’re here near the spot the 1916 proclamation [of the Irish Republic] was signed, and we’re shutting down the city and terrifying our children so the fucking queen can visit?”
Across Dublin trucks have been removing garbage bins from anywhere near the queen’s route, and manholes have been sealed up. Cops and soldiers are everywhere, and while the ?30 million being spent by the Irish state on royal and presidential security is small beer compared to what Timothy Geithner cost us last autumn, people are thinking of how that money might have been spent instead on, say, our crumbling health system.
And speaking of the health system, there are rumors of an entire floor in our leading hospital for neurological services already being set aside for Obama’s use, just in case.
How does one go about protesting in these circumstances? Socialist republican group ‘?ir?g?’ planned to make camp in the Garden of Remembrance, but once they put that plan on a poster it was never going to happen: the police hugely outnumbered them when they arrived with their tents on Sunday. The Irish Anti-War Movement, which doesn’t have a position on Northern Ireland but has continued to vigorously oppose imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be protesting with black balloons on Tuesday on behalf of the victims of “her majesty’s forces” there; they’ll also be out again next week for Obama, perhaps protesting as close as they’re allowed to get to the ‘entertainment event’.
Ciaron O’Reilly, the Australian-born Catholic Worker activist whose role in damaging a US war-plane at Shannon Airport is documented in my book, Hammered by the Irish, has come up with perhaps the most creative and certainly the most strange form of protest. On Monday evening he leads a ‘Radical Rosary Mystery Tour’ through Dublin, a procession behind a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the slogan, “NO QUEEN… But Mary Queen of Heaven ? single mother, refugee, role model for a revolutionary!” For Irish people of a certain age, the routine recitation of the Rosary, is inextricably linked to the repression and deeply entrenched domestic and social violence of Ireland in centuries past. O’Reilly’s attempt to reconfigure it into a ritual of liberation from secular power, with its mysteries mapped on to Dublin locations of tragedy and resistance, is both brilliant and, probably, futile.
Still, in Ireland today, where unemployment is 14 per cent, where wages and welfare payments are falling, where despair is rife and emigration climbing, where the European Central Bank has us by the short and curlies, and where we continue to facilitate imperialist wars at Shannon Airport, all forms of resistance are welcome. In fact, cead mille failte: a hundred thousand welcomes.