The Taoiseach used his trip to boost links between Ireland and the US
Former Tanaiste Mary Harney famously said that “spiritually” Ireland was “probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin”.
Almost 20 years on, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has changed the script in the face of the massive threat posed to Ireland’s economy by the chaos of Britain’s departure from the EU.
During his St Patrick’s Day trip to the United States, he has unashamedly seized on one of the few possible positives that could come from Brexit.
His relentless message was that Ireland wants to grasp the opportunity to become a “bridge” between the United States and Europe.
It’s an ambitious task that’s not without its difficulties, not least the volatile occupant of the Oval Office, Donald Trump, who has clashed with EU leaders such as German chancellor Angela Merkel.
As Mr Varadkar put it bluntly at the end of his US trip: “President Trump likes Ireland. He doesn’t like the European Union.”
But Mr Trump isn’t the only DC power-broker and Mr Varadkar also made his pitch in meetings with business executives and Congress representatives.
His argument is perhaps best summed up in an interview he gave to The Washington Post. He told the newspaper that “Brexit solidifies Ireland’s position as a reliable partner and a safe place for US companies to invest because we know where we want to be in the world, which is at the heart of the European Union”.
Mr Varadkar also said: “I think potentially Ireland can be a bridge between the EU and the United States which the UK can’t be anymore.”
At the US Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday, he spoke of Ireland’s 12.5pc corporate tax rate and the “certainty” it gave companies at a ‘fireside chat’ on how Ireland is the ‘Gateway of the Atlantic’.
He pointed out that the US and Ireland speak the same language, have similar business cultures and that there’s a two-way economic relationship in relation to jobs and trade.
More than 100,000 people are employed by Irish companies in the US and American companies have around 155,000 workers in Ireland.
It was a message that is well understood by US business.
Chamber chief executive Thomas Donohue said of Mr Varadkar: “The President of the United States and lots of people have developed an affection for this man because of the way he has represented… the United States’ interests, in a very challenging time due to Brexit.”
In the Oval Office, Mr Trump did indeed say that he and Mr Varadkar had become “fast friends”. But that didn’t stop him slapping down Mr Varadkar’s remarks about free trade and his hopes for a deal between the EU and US.
Mr Trump launched into a tirade against the EU and how it has treated the US “very, very unfairly” and threatened to impose tariffs on European goods.
Mr Varadkar later said he wasn’t surprised by Mr Trump’s reaction, saying he had made similar remarks at their meeting last year.
He added: “President Trump likes Ireland. He doesn’t like the European Union and he’s not a fan of multi-lateralism and he feels that the European Union treats America unfairly in terms of trade.
“The argument that I was making to him was if that’s the way he feels then maybe we should sit down, the EU and the US, and negotiate a new trade deal.”
He said the EU has done this with Japan and Canada and the US has done it with Canada and Mexico.
“So rather than megaphone diplomacy, should we not get our people across the table and negotiate a trade deal between the EU and the US that can make us all better off?”
Mr Varadkar admitted that Mr Trump’s response to this amounted to his administration prioritising a deal with China but “perhaps after that”.
The Taoiseach has also made the point that it makes sense for the US to make a deal with the EU with its 500m people-strong market, before it makes one with the UK and its 60m people.
He may not have much luck with Brexit-supporting Mr Trump in that regard, but Ireland does have other friends in Washington.
Mr Varadkar has said he believes that the US Congress won’t support any trade deal with the UK that would undermine an open border with Northern Ireland.
Trade agreements must be approved on Capitol Hill, where Ireland has allies among both the Democrats and Republicans.
Irish-American congressman Richard Neal chairs the powerful House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee which is involved in the trade approval process.
He was among those in attendance at last Thursday’s lunch hosted by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
The biggest applause Mr Varadkar received at the event was when he thanked the Friends of Ireland caucus for their “vital help” to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure there was no return to a hard border in Ireland, “whatever happens with Brexit”.
It remains to be seen if the Taoiseach will be successful in his bid to bridge the Atlantic and reap the rewards this could bring in terms of investment and jobs.
Much could change – particularly due to the ongoing Brexit turmoil and it’s hard to say what the landscape will even in June, the earliest time the Government believes that Mr Trump may visit Ireland.
Mr Varadkar is trying to place Ireland at “the heart of Europe” while being a remaining EU bastion for US business values.
But in terms of Boston and Berlin? The gulf between Trump and Merkel may be a bridge too far.