REAGAN AND THE EVIL EMPIRE

October 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

FORTY THOUSAND PEOPLE were expected in Ballyporeen for the visit of President Ronald Reagan in June 1984. Manhole covers in the small Tipperary village were welded shut for fear of terrorist attack. Gardai stood at every door along the presidential route from the parish church to the centre of the village. CIA and FBI agents (or at least that's who we thought they were), wore bullet-proof vests under trench coats and sported little gold lapel pins on their collars. They seemed to be everywhere.

So too were the camera crews and the newspaper men and women, among whom I stood, overlooking the spot from where the President was scheduled to address the people of his ancestral home. By the time I got into this prime position, I knew I was in the wrong place. Being from a small local paper, I had been allocated an out-of-the way position near the church. These locations were, quite literally, known as corrals, a suggestion, perhaps, of what the CIA thought of journalists. A slight error and a little ingenuity on my part, had me ushered onto the main press stand, courtesy of an amazingly friendly White House aid, who told me to keep quiet about who had put me there. My mistake turned out to be a stroke of good luck because I had one of the best positions anyone could have hoped for.

There was great banter and joviality between the journalists as we waited for the President’s helicopter to fly in. Soft rain fell early in the morning but it had cleared by the time the show got underway. Then there was the wait after the helicopter landed, before Reagan walked into the parish priest’s house where he inspected records showing that he was descended from Michael Regan, a small tenant farmer from the townland of Doolis.

As the Reagan’s approached our corral, a photographer from the ‘Daily Mirror’ shouted ‘Mrs Reagan, Mrs Reagan!’ in an effort to get Madame President to look our way. After several failed attempts he shouted, even louder, ‘Nancy! Nancy! Look this way!’ She turned and camera shutters clicked.

Back then I was not a fan of Reagan. Like many, I distrusted his policies. His fanatical promotion of the ‘Star Wars Programme’ seemed downright madness. Provoking a nuclear arms race seemed to be his objective and provocative descriptions of the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’ were tantamount to warmongering. Then there were an endless number of apparently insane policies towards countries in Central America, Palestine and the Middle East.

Reagan was indifferent to Ireland. He followed the British line when it came to Northern Irish issues. But he knew the value of the Irish-American vote, which he tried to woo by visiting Ireland in an election year. The 40,000 expected in Ballyporeen that day did not come. A few hundred arrived to protest but we considered most of them to be anti-war protesters or members of CND (remember them)?

I did not really appreciate on that soft June day in Ballyporeen that I was in the presence of one of the great American presidents. Few men ever change world history. Reagan did. Through clandestine involvements with Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church in Poland, he took on the ‘Evil Empire' in ways that none of his predecessors or successors have done. The smallest state in the world, under the leadership of a Polish pope, teamed up with the most wealthy country on earth to set in train events that brought about the collapse of communism in the Eastern Block, the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany. Mikhail Gorbachev played his part too and when history comes to be written, his place in changing the world and bringing down the Iron Curtain will have its just recognition.

Reagan achieved the impossible. His anti-big-government policies still dominate American politics. He restored pride and confidence in the American military machine after the Vietnam defeat. He remains immensely popular amongst the American people. 

In the rest of the world, there was the usual cynicism about America. He was regarded as old, doddery, the sort of fellow who could accidentally launch an ICBM at Russia instead of turning off the light before going to sleep. 'Spitting Images' portrayal of Reagan as an old fool captured how most of us felt about him.

I did not nor can I ever share his views on fiscal policies. I do not admire America’s ignorance and indifference towards world affairs – Reagan was part of that problem. Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, Iraq – these will always be blemishes on his record as President. But even those policies seem wonderful compared to what Trump is up to at the moment. 

Ballyporeen has every right to feel proud of its moment of fame on the world stage. The press information pack from the visit to Ballyporeen seems twee now. It turned up in my attic, a week or so before he died, and helped bring back a flood of memories. My Press Card from the visit has turned up more recently. I'm glad I found it.

Ballyporeen is much changed from those days. ‘The Ronald Reagan Pub’ where Reagan drank a mouthful of the ‘Black Stuff,’ once central in a village with nine or ten pubs, is long since closed. The once inaccessible overgrown graveyard at Templetinny, where Reagan’s ancestors were thought to have been buried, is now the model of care and tidiness.

Back in 1984, some American magazine, ‘Time’ I think, described Ballyporeen as ‘not so much a village, but the widening of a very narrow country road'. That caused upset in Ballyporeen where for those few short days, some locals thought they were in the centre of the world. Also prior to the Presidential visit I wrote an article which bucked the trend of the twee pro-Reagan coverage given to the visit by local media. My mildly cynical observations upset local people who failed to see the humourous side to all the fun and frolics that went on around that time.

But long before Reagan, the world was on a very narrow, dangerous widening road. During Reagan’s rule, the road widened, straightened a little, and became less dangerous – at least for a little while.

For Ballyporeen, the dividend from the Reagan visit was exceptionally short lived. Not that many tourists came as a result of the visit. Reagan was not John F. Kennedy.


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