SHANNON, Ireland — For the backdrop to his first official visit to Ireland, President Donald Trump wanted to promote his golf course on the nation’s rocky west coast. The Irish government countered with the grand staging of an ancient castle.
In the end, neither side got what they wanted. The compromise location for Trump’s meeting Wednesday with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was the VIP lounge at Shannon Airport, just down the hallway from the food court and duty-free shop.
And the meeting itself was more than just a warm handshake for the cameras, as the two broke sharply on what would be best for Ireland if the United Kingdom were to leave the European Union.
Varadkar has become a vociferous opponent of Brexit, a move Trump supports. Many in Ireland express worry that if the U.K. does leave, a “hard border” will return between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K, potentially reigniting sectarian tension that lasted for decades and sometimes exploded into violence.
“Probably you’ll ask me about Brexit because I just left some very good people who are very involved with Brexit, as you know,” Trump said in the leaders’ meeting. “And I think it will all work out very well, and also for you with your wall, your border.”
Varadkar quickly retorted: “I think one thing we want to avoid, of course, is a wall or border between us.”
“I think you do, I think you do,” Trump responded. “The way it works now is good, you want to try and to keep it that way. I know that’s a big point of contention with respect to Brexit. I’m sure it’s going to work out very well. I know they’re focused very heavily on it.”
Trump also has one other stop during his two days in Ireland, and it’s not the capital of Dublin or the famed Cliffs of Moher. Rather, it’s his own golf course in Doonbeg, where he will sleep for two nights amid the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The White House initially proposed that Trump meet Varadkar at the course, as part of the president’s unprecedented blending of government affairs and business advertising. But the Taoiseach’s office balked and proposed a more historic site before settling on Shannon.
Trump denied Wednesday that he was simply trying to tout his golf course.
“This trip is really about great relationships that we have with the U.K. and I really wanted to do this stop in Ireland,” he said when asked about Doonbeg. “It was very important to me because of the relationship I have with the people and with your prime minister.”
The airport lounge was hardly the usual setting for a first meeting of two heads of state, though Shannon Airport does boast of the world’s first duty-free shop. It also is a regular stopover for American officials on international flights, since its location on the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean makes it an ideal refuelling spot for far-flung trips.
Trump arrived Wednesday after participating in a multinational ceremony in Portsmouth, Great Britain , which followed his two-day United Kingdom state visit in London. On Thursday, he’ll commute from Doonbeg to the D-Day ceremony in Normandy, France before returning to Ireland for another 24 hours of golf and relaxation.
Many presidents — from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama — have been hailed as heroes in Ireland, which has strong ties to the United States and is the ancestral home for millions of Americans. But Trump’s quick, mostly-hidden-from-view visit will likely earn him little reaction at all.
His unusual, limited itinerary will keep him far from much of the protests that awaited him in Ireland. Though some protesters set up a “peace camp” not far from the Shannon airport, the main demonstration was set to take place 120 miles away in Dublin, where the infamous Trump baby balloon is expected to be flown again.
But the reception in Doonbeg, a village of 262 people, was expected to be much warmer. The president’s 400-acre hotel and golf course, which sits above the Atlantic’s waves, is a large employer in the area, and many who call Doonbeg home believe it benefits economically from the visitors.
The Trump Organization has poured tons of millions into Doonbeg since it bought the resort in 2014 but it has yet to make a profit.
The club has been hurt by shutdowns during renovations over the years, but expected to start making money in 2017. Instead, it posted operating losses that year and, according to unaudited figures provided by the Trump Organization, did again the following year.
As is the case in Trump’s two money-losing Scottish resorts , Doonbeg has stunning ocean views but has also, at times, been a lightning rod for controversy. Though the civic clashes in Ireland have not been nearly as nasty as those around Trump’s golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland, plans to build a wall to stop rising sea levels were fought by local residents. Environmentalists worried it would damage dunes and a public beach in the area.
The club also wants to build a ballroom, a “leisure facility” with a restaurant and 53 homes for visitors on its property, but has to wait for local government review and approval for that, too.
Losses notwithstanding, the financial trends for the Irish resort appear to be heading in the right direction. Operating losses last year were a third of those a year earlier.
The golf courses are predominantly run by the president’s two adult sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., who did not take administration jobs but plan to reprise their 2016 roles as campaign surrogates for their father’s upcoming re-election bid. The two were also part of a retinue of adult Trump children who were highly visible during their father’s state visit to London, helpfully sharing images of their adventures on social media.
Associated Press writers Bernard Condon in New York and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed reporting.
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Jonathan Lemire, The Associated Press