How Brexit is leading a resurgent Irish American influence in US politics
Observing the build up of Irish and Irish American energies in Washington DC in preparation for St Patrick’s Day in March, the Economist’s Lexington column marvelled that the Irish Taoiseach is the only world leader guaranteed an annual meeting with the US president. As Ed Luce wrote in the FT: “No one who sampled Washington’s manic schedule of St Patrick’s day events … could miss the formidable display of Ireland’s influence.”
And yet that influence has often been missed, or simply dismissed as “shamrock diplomacy”, particularly by British observers. It’s ironic, then, that this influence may play a significant part in the diplomatic shenanigans around Brexit, and in post-Brexit relations between Britain, Ireland and the US, after strong political groups in Congress warn they are ready to block any US-UK trade deal in the event of a threat to an open Irish border as the UK seeks to leave the EU.
Ireland’s soft power in the US has long been hidden in plain sight, drawing on the appeal of an ethnic identity that around 35m Americans claimed in the last national census. It has close ties to the Irish American leadership at the heart of American politics and to the Irish American lobby in Washington. The power of this lobby, as with any ethnic lobby, is contingent on both US domestic affairs and international interests. Today, it is showing signs of flexing diplomatic muscles long thought dormant.
Nationalism and independence
The main issues that have historically concerned the Irish American lobby are support for Irish independence, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and increasing quotas for Irish immigrant entry to the US.
These issues reflect the scale and nature of Irish emigration to, and patterns of settlement in, the US. Of the more than 6m people who journeyed from Ireland to the US between 1840 and 1900, most settled in northern and eastern urban centres. From immiserated and often traumatic beginnings in the US, the Irish aggregated power and identity in these urban centres over time, via the catholic church, machine politics and union leadership.
Nationalism was a core feature of American life for many Irish emigrants and their offspring. From the Untied Irish Exiles in the early 1800s to Clan na Gael in the early 1900s, Irish American political culture maintained a strong investment in the imagined freedom of the old country. With reciprocal interest from organisations in Ireland, a transnational culture of political activism developed that eventually fed into the successful struggle for Ireland’s independence in the early 20th century.
Much of this activism worked through civil society organisations. But in 1917, following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany and the need to defend the rights of small nations, several political resolutions pressed US support for Irish independence. These pressures to address “the Irish question” reached a head with a full floor discussion in Congress in March 1919, which passed a resolution calling on the US delegation at the Versailles peace conference in Paris to make Irish self-determination an urgent matter.
The temperature of Irish nationalism in the US cooled in the later 1920s. Ireland still promoted itself in the US after this but its neutrality meant it had difficulties getting its voice heard. Successive US presidents and administrations deferred to British perspectives, most notably on Northern Ireland.
The eruption of violent conflict in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s fuelled a resurgence of ethnic consciousness in Irish America and politicised portions of it in favour of a militant nationalism. Through the 1970s, there was a small but significant swell in support for the claims and activities of the IRA.
This militancy galvanised moderate Irish American political leaders to promote support for constitutional nationalism and to lobby in Washington for US intervention in Northern Ireland. The Four Horsemen – Senator Edward Kennedy, Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Governor Hugh Carey – had some success in pressing President Jimmy Carter to make a symbolic statement on Northern Ireland in 1977, which broke the silence of American administrations.
In 1981, they helped form Friends of Ireland, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives, which played a significant role in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and advanced the idea that a political solution was possible.
Carter’s symbolic line would later be bulldozed by Bill Clinton as he led a major shift in US policy towards Northern Ireland as president. This shift was facilitated by a lobby group of influential Irish Americans, which pressed Clinton to intervene in Northern Ireland and contributed to back-channel diplomacy involving covert discussions with the IRA and efforts to connect Sinn Féin with US policy makers.
There can be no doubt that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has the fingerprints of Irish America on it. It was a high-water mark for its Washington lobbyists. But for the next 20 years Northern Ireland would slip off the agenda and focus shifted principally to economic relations between Ireland and the US. After the passing of the Four Horsemen’s generation of leadership and the post-9/11 deterrence to new Irish emigrants, Irish America no longer functioned as a recognisable political block and had drifted from its once strong association with the Democratic Party.
But Brexit and Donald Trump – in different but complexly related ways – have galvanised Irish America and re-energised Washington lobbying. On Brexit, there is now consistent messaging around the need to defend the Good Friday Agreement in relation to any trade deal between the UK and the US. Former members of Congress and US ambassadors to Ireland, and the leaders of major Irish American organisations now belong to the Ad Hoc Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement, created in January 2019.
There is powerful support from the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who took it directly to the UK and Irish governments when she said in April that if the Brexit deal undermined the Good Friday Accord there would be “no chance” of a trade agreement between the US and the UK.
Another powerful voice is Congressman Richard Neal, a long time spokesman for Irish interests, stretching back to his involvement in the Northern Irish peace process. His voice carries some authority in Washington as chair of the influential Ways and Means Committee in Congress, which will oversee any post-Brexit trade deal between the US and the UK.
Underlying this coordinated messaging is a complex of political drives and interests. While there can be no doubting Pelosi’s and Neal’s commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement, their forthright comments on the makings of a trade deal between the UK and the US are also a form of opposition to President Donald Trump.
This opposition is about more than Brexit but neither is it simply domestic political partisanship. It also reflects a deeper ideological struggle over American identity and the US’s role in the world. Trump supports Brexit, viewing it as a weakening of the European Union’s regulatory power, aligning it with his worldview of “America First” in which all international relations are transactional. Pelosi and Neal view Brexit as a threat to the liberal internationalism that has guided US foreign policy since the end of World War II and now seems imperilled by Trump.
In this regard, Ireland finds itself in the midst of a transatlantic struggle between advocates of nationalism and globalisation. With its government having pinned its colours to the forces of globalisation and the merits of continued EU membership it too has to politick carefully with its powerful neighbours as it designs its future post-Brexit.