Fionnuala O Connor: Taoiseach shows transparency has its limitations

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (green scarf) and his partner Matt Barrett pass Trump Tower as they walk down 5th Avenue in the St Patrick's Day parade in New York City. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday March 17, 2018. See PA story IRISH Taoiseach. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

‘We have a long way to go, and there is always plenty to criticise, but Taoiseach @campaignforleo marching with his partner in a parade that until recently banned LGBT groups is progress worth marking. #StPatricksDay

The tweet had a big shamrock as an extra full stop, a shout of determined celebration of something worth celebrating, and hang any embarrassment along the way.

Last week the civil servant currently standing in for the entirety of Stormont told us that some time back he and his colleagues stopped routinely minuting meetings. Because they knew the DUP and Sinn Féin didn’t like their discussions written up, and Freedom of Information requests might uncover their awkward thoughts.

Instead of marvelling at this bureaucratic plain-speaking, fretful comment focused on the need for transparency in any decent democracy. Head of the civil service David Sterling, it was said, had just shown us how defective Stormont was in this regard, how embarrassing, in other words, are our local politics and politicians.

But across the wide Atlantic last Thursday, the rookie taoiseach (when do you stop being a rookie?) told a little anecdote (which apparently he likes to re-tell) about taking a phone call in his then job as tourism minister - from a big-shot American businessman seeking assistance who is now the President of the United States.

Speaking in front of Mr President Trump, the taoiseach over-did it. Whether it was excitement plus jet lag on top of his habitual over-speaking, Leo became so transparent he admitted something he didn’t, precisely, do, and babbled.

He made such an eejit of himself that by the time he and blessedly unforthcoming partner partner Matt Barrett led the parade down Fifth Avenue, delight had to be determinedly re-kindled. For the detached well-wisher, the best to be said is that when it comes to makey-uppy reminiscence the first gay taoiseach is as much of a gom as his heterosexual predecessor.

Not that in the week of March 17 any green-blooded commentator should take pleasure in pointing up defects in Irish political performance across the pond. For anyone outside the bubble this is a look-away week. The festival of (green) cheese discourages verbal restraint, and wit, though in his defence Leo told us he was being humorous and yes, mentioned wit. But then breaking through green prejudice and glass ceilings does not automatically confer distinction.

At least Gerry Adams, also on tour but restrained to date in his non-presidential new role, seems to have put over-tweeting behind him. Even having the big day named after him didn’t puncture the calm, which was a mercy. Maybe he was puzzled as well at the honour, coming as it did from the New York mayor who boycotted the parade while it excluded gay groups. The fact that Adams and the fawning Ian Paisley rather than Arlene Foster and Mary Lou McDonald got White House invites surprised nobody; the Northern Ireland peace is well off Trump-diplomat agendas.

To be fair, the pace of St Paddy’s Day events for the visiting Irish must be testing.

Library of Congress celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement - all men at the top table noted Sunday Business Post correspondent Marion McKeone. The Irish Ambassador’s reception, the Ireland Funds Gala, the Speaker’s Lunch on Capitol Hill where Leo told his story. And the Oval Office, where he sat side by side with the president and gabbled to stay afloat in the small-talk while Trump free-associated, looking glazed, on the theme of ‘love the Irish, wonderful country.’

McKeone caught a fine off-camera exchange. ‘I was in Texas, the taoiseach volunteered gamely. Oh yeah? Trump responded. Great guy.’ Varadkar had lambasted Enda Kenny for inviting Trump to Ireland. Now he repeated the invitation, adding that he’d take Trump to ‘see the border.’

But as reminder that politicians are not alone in out-running satire, there has been that parade of bureaucrats through the RHI inquiry. The bland leading the bland, nobody apparently blushing to have administered or at least overseen a scheme with the opposite effect to its alleged ambition. The big mystery is how cheerily they admit their failings.

Fresh from his own inquiry appearance David Sterling joined the St Patrick’s Day trekkers to the USA. The Executive Office, whose place in administration Sterling currently fills, told the News Letter that he was off to promote tourism and business opportunities. And he would be at the Speaker’s Lunch ‘set to be attended by both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the US president himself.’ Well, why not.

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