Obama’s speech in Westminster Hall was heavy: but his big speech in Ireland was simply fraudulent

President Obama drinks a Guinness in Hayes Bar in Moneygall, County Offaly, during his visit to Ireland (Photo: Press Association)

What one has always to remember, in speeches delivered abroad by statesmen from any democratic country—but especially from America—is that for them their most important audience is back home. President Obama’s performance in the medieval splendours of Westminster Hall, it seems, didn’t go down all that well back in the US of A: his meeting with the Cambridges got more media attention. Certainly, his oratory has often been more compelling; after the jokiness and rabble-rousing of a lot of his speech in Ireland, he was going for gravitas and frankly he achieved it: he was at times so heavy that I nearly nodded off (Ken Clarke was actually snoring, though to be fair he often does that). There was a joke at the beginning: but that was it. The president was, frankly, a little pompous, and there was a high cliché rate. The inevitable contrast with the pope’s address in Westminster Hall vividly pointed the speech’s lack of substance.

There was another contrast: His very serious address could hardly have been more different from the speech he had addressed the day before not only to 25,000 people in College Green, Dublin but also to the 40 million voters back home who describe themselves as Irish American. Gravitas this wasn’t: it was first jokey then “inspirational”. It was quite a performance:

The President: Thank you! (Applause.) Hello, Dublin! (Applause.) Hello, Ireland! (Applause.) My name is Barack Obama—(applause) —of the Moneygall Obamas. (Applause.) And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe that we lost somewhere along the way. (Laughter and applause.)

Audience member: : I’ve got it here!

The President: Is that where it is? (Laughter.)

Some wise Irish man or woman once said that broken Irish is better than clever English. (Applause.) So here goes: Tá áthas orm bheith in Éirinn—I am happy to be in Ireland! (Applause.) I’m happy to be with so many á cairde. (Applause.)”

The most interesting part, for me, was the attempt to establish his own Irishness. It was an interesting exercise, which very carefully sidestepped the point about the “Irish” vote in America that he was so assiduously courting: that it is, essentially, at least tribally Catholic. No descendant of Irish protestants in America joins in those overblown St Patrick’s Day parades, or describes themselves as “Irish-American”.

So Obama was treading on potentially dangerous ground when he seemed to appropriate an Irishness of a kind that would actually induce (Catholic) Irish Americans to vote for him in large numbers. As one Irish blogger, Eoghan Harris, put it in an article amusingly entitled “Obama is literally a black protestant”:

“ ‘There’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama,’ says the song. Steve MacDonogh’s [book] Barack Obama—The Road from Moneygall proves that this is partly true—but only if you believe that the President’s Irish Protestant ancestors were as fully Irish as their Roman Catholic nationalist neighbours.

And the answer to that question is still problematical among sections of the Roman Catholic majority”.

So, the president sidestepped the tricky question of his Irish grandfather’s ecclesial affiliation:

“Earlier today Michelle and I visited Moneygall where we saw my ancestral home and dropped by the local pub. (Applause.) And we received a very warm welcome from all the people there, including my long-lost eighth cousin, Henry. (Laughter.) Henry now is affectionately known as Henry VIII. (Laughter.) And it was remarkable to see the small town where a young shoemaker named Falmouth Kearney, my great-great-great grandfather, my grandfather’s grandfather, lived his early life. And I was the shown the records from the parish recording his birth. And we saw the home where he lived.”

What he carefully didn’t mention was that those records were from the Church of Ireland (i.e. protestant) parish church. The crowd in College Green may or may not have realised that (I am told that most of them didn’t): and I wonder how many of those Irish American voters back home did. One thing is sure: the president won’t be going out of his way to enlighten them.

The tone got more serious, of course. The president became inspirational at some length, something he’s very good indeed at: he has the voice, the delivery, the power to seize an audience:

“When depression gripped America, Ireland sent tens of thousands of packages of shamrocks to cheer up its countrymen, saying, “May the message of Erin shamrocks bring joy to those away.

“And when an Iron Curtain fell across this continent and our way of life was challenged, it was our first Irish President—our first Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, who made us believe 50 years ago this week—(applause)—that mankind could do something big and bold and ambitious as walk on the moon. He made us dream again.

“That is the story of America and Ireland. That’s the tale of our brawn and our blood, side by side, in making and remaking a nation, pulling it westward, pulling it skyward, moving it forward again and again and again.”

As I say, he’s very good at this onward and upward “yes, we can” kind of thing (he even said it in Irish). Wilkie Collins said that the way to grip an audience was to “Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait”, and nobody does it better. I was impressed. But I have to say also that I think there was something deeply fraudulent about the whole operation. Not so much in his implied claim to be the kind of Irish American that the Irish voter back home identifies with. The real implied claim was that his values were Irish values. And his real values, quite simply, are such that if at College Green he had spelled them out in any detail, that adoring crowd would have become at first embarrassed, and then hostile. It may be that support for the Catholic Church in Ireland is not, given its recent history, what it was (though Mass attendance is still among the highest in Europe). But Catholic values and beliefs are another thing entirely. And those values and beliefs are very far from being Obama’s. As I have written before in this space,

“… across the whole spectrum of contemporary moral issues, he is passionately committed to a series of views which run directly contrary to those of the Church. All this has caused at least one Catholic bishop (there are probably others) to call him anti-Catholic.

“As a Senator, he supported sex education, to be provided by Planned Parenthood, to children of five years old. He consistently voted for abortion, including partial birth abortion. He voted (twice) against Bills prohibiting public funding of abortions; he voted in favour of expanding embryonic stem cell research; he voted against notifying parents of minors who had undergone out-of-state abortions; he voted for a proposal to vote $100,000,000 for the funding of sex-education and contraceptives (including abortifacients) for teenagers; he opposed the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act” on the Senate floor and in 2003 killed the bill in committee. This would have outlawed “live birth abortion,” where labor is induced and an infant is delivered prematurely and then allowed to die.”

The fact is that Irish America (whether individuals are orthodox and practising or not) is the heartland of the pro-life movement. And to see that Irish crowd in College Green gripped, held in the palm of Obama’s hand by his formidable oratorical powers so that Irish voters back home could observe his triumph was a spectacle that made me feel distinctly queasy. It was nothing less than blatant electioneering, and I hope that Catholic voters see through it. Cristina Odone, one of my predecessors as editor of the Herald, thinks that they will:

“I suspect Obama’s Machiavellian tactic will backfire. The Irish will spin it as a PR triumph capable of regenerating their tourism rather than as a politically momentous occasion; the Irish Americans will quite rightly view the trip as a desperate, last ditch appeal to them.
O’Bama, oh why sink so low?”

I hope that she’s right. But I very much fear he will get away with it. As I say, this is the kind of thing he’s very good at.