Letter from Wicklow/Larry Donnelly/March 2023

 Immigration as political issue … Bertie’s back … Biden’s running again
WICKLOW – When I wrote in this space at Christmas, there were widespread protests in Ireland at the government’s often hastily conceived moves to house thousands of refugees and protection seekers from Ukraine and beyond in hotels and other unused or underused facilities.  The most prominent of these gatherings was in Dublin’s East Wall area, but they have taken place in cities, towns, and villages across the nation.

They are ongoing; some have been quite ugly with attendees expressing racist and xenophobic sentiments.  Yet it seems that plenty of objectors have undeniably legitimate concerns as to whether Ireland is able to actually provide for the newcomers in the context of a health system that is stretched to its limits and a vexed housing crisis.
Indications are emerging at this stage about what the broader reaction of the Irish people is to what we have been hearing, watching, and reading in the media on a daily basis.  In short, and for the first time ever on an island historically afflicted by emigration, immigration is going to be a key political issue in the local and European elections that will occur next year and in the general election, which will be held either in late 2024 or early 2025. 
Notably in this regard, Ireland is tracking the same path as its neighbors next door – the fact is that the United Kingdom’s choice to leave the European Union was motivated principally by a misguided view that it would “take back control” of its borders as a consequence – and on the continent.

A recent Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll reveals that 56 percent of the citizenry believe that too many people have been taken in during the past twelve months.  Nearly 80,000 have come here, more than 50,000 from Ukraine and 25,000 or so from elsewhere.  Some 20 percent of those asked now define immigration as a subject that politicians must prioritise and reckon with.  In 2020, a mere 1 percent called it important.
Although the ascendant Sinn Féin’s leaders are avowedly left of centre ideologically and ardently pro-immigration, 61 [percent of its supporters think that Ireland has accepted an excessive number of migrants.  The reality is that many in this cohort are alienated and struggling economically; they are increasingly receptive to the messaging of the far right, especially if Sinn Féin enters government and becomes a part of the “establishment.”  It has been posited – correctly, in my estimation – that a majority would be aligned with the far right already in any other European country.  Regrettably, and no matter how mainstream politicians pivot, there looks to be a gap in the market for malevolent forces.
Following his resignation and a lengthy period in the wilderness, ex-Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern has re-joined his Fianna Fáil party as an ordinary member.  Ahern is known and respected internationally for presiding over the “Celtic Tiger” boom in Ireland, for the negotiating skill he demonstrated as one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, and, latterly, for being a voice of experience and expertise on Brexit and the fallout therefrom.
Conversely, in the eyes of a large segment of the population at home, his achievements are eclipsed by what they deem his irresponsible management of the economy that led to a dreadful recession and the findings of the Mahon Tribunal that the explanations Ahern advanced “as to the source of substantial funds” he was in possession of were “untrue.”  There are tales that are the stuff of lore and derision: whip-arounds, presents, winnings on horses, as well as a claim that he, a senior politician who had been Minister for Finance, did not have a bank account.  His enemies have been opining in furious Twitter posts that Ahern is a “crook” who should never be forgiven and that Fianna Fáil only proved they retain a soft spot for dishonesty by readmitting a man who should just go away.

Theirs is a pretty harsh assessment.  In fairness to Bertie Ahern, the Mahon Tribunal did not conclude that he was corrupt.  He asserts that he would have mounted a legal challenge to its negative findings if he had the means to do so.  That said, Ahern’s critics are right that some of what came to light about his financial dealings is inescapably confusing and troubling.  And as Ahern has admitted, he made mistakes as Taoiseach, even if it is doubtful that any of his counterparts would have adopted a divergent policy direction when Ireland was basking in an era of unprecedented prosperity.

His legacy is complicated.  But after many years outside the fold, I fully understand why Fianna Fáil would open the door to Bertie Ahern.  As the protagonists in the protracted efforts to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol and other post-Brexit arrangements who routinely seek and rely upon his counsel would confirm, he has a lot to offer.  Having spoken to him and seen him in action in multiple settings, I can also attest to it.  He remains an impressive figure at 71.
Some speculate that this is all a precursor to an Ahern bid for President of Ireland once Michael D. Higgins completes his second term in 2025.  He hasn’t ruled it out.  The prospect horrifies his foes.  To me, this scenario is improbable in the extreme.  Ireland has changed radically and rapidly since he left office in 2008.  His famed political antennae are still alert.  Accordingly, deep down, Bertie Ahern must recognize that a presidential campaign would be a straight uphill climb.
A quick word on the 2024 race for the White House, which Irish watchers of American politics are homing in on.  I am one of the skeptics as to the advisability of Joe Biden’s running.  For more than half a century in public life, the man from Scranton with roots in Mayo and Louth has overcome a series of obstacles and finally was elected president against the odds.  Remember when he finished fifth in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary and pundits were conducting autopsies on his third failed candidacy?

He has put in a meritorious performance as commander-in-chief hard on the heels of the non-stop drama and distraction that dominated his predecessor’s tenure.  He pointed to his administration’s successes in the State of the Union and repeatedly stated that there is more that needs to be done.  Biden’s was not the speech of a man intending to retire.  But I concur with the observers here who, notwithstanding their grá for the “most Irish” president since Kennedy, feel that the 80 year old should pass the torch to the next generation.  As they frequently say to me in the next breath, however, “Biden’s not for turning.”  The State of the Union made that clear.  Time will soon tell if this is a wise decision for him and his fellow Democrats.
Remembering Paul Donnelly
Lastly, while I love coming home to Boston, my impending brief trip in April will be tinged with sadness.  I am returning for a memorial service to celebrate the remarkable life of my uncle, Paul Donnelly, a proud native of Dorchester Lower Mills and an equally proud resident of Beacon Hill since the early 1970s who died in January at 78.  The two neighborhoods meant everything to him.  Paul was a great football player in his youth and in college who went on to be an accomplished engineer and architect.  He subsequently moved into academia, where he established himself as an inspirational teacher and world-class researcher in a distinguished career.
But to his nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Paul, who was always incredibly encouraging to us and genuinely interested in our various academic, professional, and personal endeavors.  Uncle Paul also travelled regularly to Ireland and his Irish passport was among his most cherished possessions.
He was a terrific guy.  My thoughts and prayers are now and will continue to be with his wonderful wife, Addy, his dedicated siblings, Louise and Brian, and his big, diverse circle of close friends, colleagues, and former students.  I hope that he has been reunited with his eldest brother, my father, and his parents.  It’s not the best of occasions, yet it will be nice to see my family on Easter weekend and share reminiscences of Paul Donnelly, truly a man for all seasons.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a media commentator on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.  Twitter: @LarryPDonnelly