WASHINGTON — Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny is urging President Donald Trump to help Irish people living in the U.S. illegally, saying they just want to “make America great.”
Kenny spoke at a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday as part of a series of events celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, including a one-on-one meeting with Trump at the White House. Kenny told reporters after the morning meeting that he and Trump discussed immigration, trade and the Irish economy. Kenny is Ireland’s prime minister; “taoiseach” means “leader” or “chief” in Irish.
Trump welcomed Kenny to the White House, proclaiming his love for Ireland. At the luncheon, he called Kenny a “new friend” and quoted an Irish proverb to remember friends that “have stuck by you.” Trump added: “politically speaking, a lot of us know that.”
Kenny said that during the meeting, he sought to impress upon Trump the difficulties Ireland will face as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Trump supported the British vote to leave the 28-country bloc, saying earlier this year that leaving would “end up being a great thing.”
Asked whether they discussed Trump’s second attempt to ban refugees and people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., Kenny replied that they discussed in a “very constructive fashion the relationship between Ireland and the United States.”
Kenny, who was critical of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, described their meeting as a “good, friendly, constructive engagement.”
After the meeting and luncheon, Kenny was returning to the White House later Thursday for a St. Patrick’s Day reception.
Kenny will be the first EU politician to meet with Trump after British Prime Minister Theresa May. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was scheduled to come to the White House on Tuesday, but that visit was moved back to Friday because of the snow.
The St. Patrick’s Day White House event dates back to the 1950s and has become an important standing engagement for Ireland, which has strong emotional and ancestral ties to the United States.
Speaking after Trump at the luncheon, Kenny showed off his country’s famed wit, saying that he “just saw the president of the United States read from his script.”
But Kenny was also complimentary.
“Let me congratulate you, President Trump, on your election,” he said. “You beat them all.”
Earlier, had Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala, joined Vice President Mike Pence and Pence’s wife, Karen, for breakfast at the Naval Observatory.
While there were calls at home to skip the annual visit, Kenny — who labeled Trump’s language “dangerous” during the campaign — said it is important to keep the standing date.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Kenny said: “European leaders need to be over here talking to Republicans, Democrats and the administration about what membership of the European Union means and the relationship that it can have with as powerful an entity as the United States.”
Earlier this year, Trump said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union would “end up being a great thing” and predicted the bloc would continue to break apart. The comments echoed Trump’s rhetoric during his presidential campaign.
Kenny is the first European Union politician to meet with Trump after British Prime Minister Theresa May. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was scheduled to come to the White House on Tuesday, but that visit was moved back to Friday because of the snow.
Kenny also had said he plans to push Trump on his plans for Irish people living in the country illegally. At a dinner in Washington Wednesday night, Kenny said: “We will of course raise with Congress and with President Trump himself that the necessary work will be done for our undocumented to be allowed to come in from the cold, feel the warmth of this great country and relieve the burden of having to live in that limbo land.”
Trump ran on a promise to curtail illegal immigration. His revised travel ban, affecting travelers from six Muslim-majority nations, had been set to go effect Thursday before it was put on hold Wednesday by a federal judge in Hawaii.
Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, said this meeting is more serious than in past years largely because of the fallout from Brexit, which is raising concerns about Ireland’s economic prospects and the future for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. He said, “You add all this up and this has become a much more substantive meeting.”
Kenny spokesman Feargal Purcell said Kenny wants to discuss ways to find “positive outcomes” for an estimated 50,000 Irish people in the country illegally, and he will “outline the positive engagement there can be between Europe and the United States, especially in a post Brexit context.”
The St. Patrick’s Day White House event dates back to the 1950s and has become an important standing engagement for Ireland, which has strong emotional and ancestral ties to the United States. The prime minister is set to have a one-on-one meeting with Trump Thursday, as well as attend a luncheon at the Capitol and an evening reception at the White House.
Traditionally, the prime minister presents the president with a bowl of shamrocks to mark the occasion.
Last year, Kenny was greeted warmly by a green tie-wearing President Barack Obama, who gave an affectionate speech, calling it one of his favorite events of the year, because “I get to welcome my people.”
According to Census data, 32.7 million United States residents claimed Irish ancestry in 2015, making it the second most commonly cited European ancestry, following German. Trump earlier this month proclaimed March as Irish-American Heritage Month, as the president does every year. About 200,000 Irish-Americans lived in Chicago in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This may be the last year Kenny, Ireland’s leader since 2011, makes the White House pilgrimage on behalf of Ireland. Kenny, who has faced pressure from party colleagues to resign over a stumbling response to a police scandal, has said he will address his political future when he returns from America.
Some political critics in Ireland called on Kenny to cancel this year’s meeting and a number of petition campaigns urged a boycott, including one from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an Irish American. But The Irish Times editorialized in favor of attending, saying, “no matter how gratifying to our sense of moral superiority, a boycott will be seen as a lost opportunity for face time with the world’s most important leader.”
Kenny has to “walk a tightrope,” said Henry Farrell, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Farrell said Kenny “does not want to be seen as too close to Trump or to be identified with Trump and the same time he wants to preserve a relationship with a guy who is going to be president of the United States” for the next four years.