If you study Ireland’s politics, read its great writers or visit the Emerald Isle, you soon learn that these folks use language in a way that puts the rest of the English speaking world to shame, and there’s nothing they detest more than a phony. So it was that an Irish Times columnist assessed the visit of America’s vice president with an article titled, “How Mike Pence shat on the new carpet in Ireland’s spare room.”
The grandson of an immigrants from County Clare and County Sligo, Pence loves St. Patrick’s Day and shamrocks but doesn’t seem to identify with the immigrant yearnings that align the Irish with the Latin Americans struggling to become Americans today. Pence’s own grandfather fled poverty and violence to find sanctuary here, but Pence supports the viciously anti-immigrant policies of the administration he serves.
In Ireland this week, Pence insulted his hosts by fleeing Dublin for a village 180 miles to the west where he and his big entourage spent untold federal dollars on luxury rooms at one of President Trump’s golf resorts. (House Democrats have already requested the paperwork on Pence’s stay.) Although this stiff-arm treatment of the Irish hospitality industry was appalling, it was Pence’s comments about Brexit that moved Miriam Lord to regard him as Trump’s untrained lapdog: “As Pence read from the autocue and Irish eyes definitely stopped smiling, it was clear he was channeling His Master’s Voice. Trump is a fan of Brexit and of Boris.”
“Boris” is the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is having a disastrous run of things in his effort to force the United Kingdom’s quick exit from the European Union even if no formal agreement for the separation is reached with the EU. This so-called “hard Brexit” would reinstate the controlled border that separated the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland during the decades long period known as The Troubles, when thousands were killed in fighting over the north’s status as part of the UK. Putting up new customs and passport control stations could restore the conditions that caused The Troubles to fester in the first place.
Few in Ireland or Northern Ireland want the Hard Brexit option, but still Pence told his hosts “to negotiate in good faith” with Boris Johnson and to have “respect for the UK’s sovereignty.” Reeking with insensitivity to Ireland’s present and its past, these were the words of a man more concerned with making the boss back in Washington happy than with the reality of life in the place where he stood. They gave the lie to his claim to be “deeply humbled” and “honored” to be hosted abroad. He was, it seems, a clod in the old sod.
As Lord noted, Pence seemed to see Ireland through a distorted lens or, as she put it, as “an old Ireland, one his ancestors left generations ago.” In that old Ireland, life was so constrained by a repressive Catholic church hierarchy that clerical abuse of thousands of children went unreported. The church’s control over society began to crack in the 1980s as victims went public and government authorities opened investigations. Irish Catholics abandoned Sunday services in droves and eventually voted to legalize both abortion and gay marriage.
In 2019 Ireland, Pence was greeted by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, a married gay man whose father immigrated from India. Much of the country surely knew that the vice president, famous for his conservative religious views, had opposed marriage equality and other efforts to advance the rights of lesbian, gay, and transgender people. Certainly, Lord knew all about this aspect of Pence’s character and about how, for religious reasons, he famously will not dine alone with a woman who was not his wife.
With typical Irish wit, Lord noted that Varadkar had encouraged Pence to bring his mother with him to Ireland. She also observed that should the vice president’s wife be unavailable, “in an emergency…mammy could sit in as chaperone should the VP have found himself unavoidably alone in a dining room with our gay Taoiseach.”
For a country so recently dominated by a church that regards homosexuality as a sin, Ireland is a notably committed to equality. In June, Dublin hosted a 10-day gay pride celebration where police from Northern Ireland joined a big parade. When Pence arrived in Ireland, a poet named Sarah Clancy picketed with a sign that read, “Queers Against Pence.” She told a local paper she was grateful to live “one of the most free countries in the world. I can protest Mike Pence’s visit, his inhumanity, racism and homophobia without fear of persecution or retribution.”
Clancy’s open protest, like Miriam Lord’s writing, proved the New Ireland’s openness and respect for free speech. For centuries their ancestors had to express their political views in less obvious and symbolic ways in order to avoid the wrath of British authorities. This old art still comes in handy on occasions when there’s a point to be made but circumstances call for courtesy and reserve.
When Pence came calling, as Lord pointed out, the Taoiseach made sure to decorate with masses of pink and lavender carnations. Students of history know that Nazi’s used a pink triangle to identify gay people sent to concentration camps and that in 1950s America a campaign of persecution against gay people in government was called the Lavender Scare.
Iceland officials also used symbols to show their distaste for Pence’s anti-equality attitudes. As pride flags flapped in the wind Iceland’s president and first lady donned rainbow bracelets for their meeting with Pence. In London. the vice president wasn’t confronted by symbols of LGBTQ pride but from across the pond President Trump engaged in a Twitter fight with the mayor of London.
It seems the president wanted to make sure that everywhere Pence went overseas, locals would understand just how divisive America’s top leaders have become.
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