Trump Bends Over to Kiss the Blarney State

The relationship between the United States and Ireland is pure bunkum. That suits both sides fine.

A pipes and drum band marches during the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston on March 17, 2019.
A pipes and drum band marches during the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston on March 17, 2019. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, June 5, U.S. President Donald Trump will make a short trip to Ireland on his way back from his state visit to the United Kingdom. The president will also hold bilateral talks with Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, at Shannon Airport—reportedly at the VIP lounge, after Dublin turned down Trump’s offer to host it at his own hotel and golf course at Doonbeg.

A mini-controversy over the visit’s location has grabbed the lion’s share of the attention in the U.S. media. Trump’s casual meeting with the head of the Irish government bespeaks the real truth: U.S. presidents are mostly interested in Ireland only as a pleasant visit or a photo opportunity because of a set of outdated ethnic stereotypes about Ireland and Irish Americans. And, despite Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall’s ambitions that Brexit will elevate Washington’s relations with Dublin into a “special relationship,” Irish leaders have a strong incentive to avoid most forms of substantive engagement. For both sides, script is more tempting than substance—since a real look at the relationship would reveal that, for all the blarney, there isn’t much there.

One area in which the Trump administration is normal, after all, is in its approach to Irish relations. Appointing a wealthy Irish American donor to be ambassador? Check. Mumbling vaguely about what, exactly, the two leaders talked about in their substantive discussions? Check. (“We’re having some good talks about trade and about military and about cyber,” Trump said of his 2018 bilateral meeting with Varadkar.) Tired reliance on tropes about Irish tribalism? Also check. (“You don’t want to fight with the Irish. It’s too tough”; “The Irish are confident, fierce, faithful, tough, and true.”)

Those sorts of gestures, even for the Trump White House, show a lack of seriousness and preparation that one wouldn’t expect in most other relations with a wealthy democracy. But they’re all too typical of the way U.S. politicians have treated Ireland—always with an eye toward the sizable percentage of American voters who claim Irish ancestry.

That has produced a standard script for a presidential visit to Ireland, especially if the president can claim any Irish ancestry whatsoever, which mostly involves some tie—however tenuous—to the president’s Irish roots. Richard Nixon spent time at the grave of his Quaker ancestors. Barack Obama played the game, too. So did Ronald Reagan, who drank a pint of Guinness in a pub in Ballyporeen (now preserved in his presidential museum!)—even though he had downplayed his Irish roots to play the role of a WASP during his climb up the social and political ladder.

Those tropes recall the standard story of Ireland’s relations with America, which centered on generations of Irish emigration from the Old World and success in the New World. Nobody played that role better than the only Irish Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who visited in 1963 before rapturous crowds. “It took 115 years to make this trip,” Kennedy said in New Ross. “When my great-grandfather left here to become a cooper in East Boston, he carried nothing with him except two things: a strong religious faith and a strong desire for liberty.”

Kennedy’s words resonated at a time when a sixth of the Irish population left the republic to seek employment elsewhere. As Kennedy also said, “Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export, and that is its people.”

That exodus, spurred by economic stagnation—Ireland and East Germany were the only countries in Europe to lose population in the 1950s—confirmed all the old American perceptions about Ireland. It also added even more voters to a suddenly important political constituency: Catholic Irish Americans in the biggest cities, such as New York, Baltimore, and Buffalo. Kennedy’s 1960 election played hard to this constituency. At the same time, anti-Catholic campaigns orchestrated by Protestant leaders like Billy Graham perversely confirmed the bloc’s importance.

U.S. politicians soon paid Catholic Irish Americans the compliment they pay any important group: They pandered to them. Mostly, that took the form of symbolism, including what the Irish themselves call paddywhackery—a reliance on remarkably crude ethnic stereotypes. A Google search shows a succession of U.S. presidents smilingly accepting shamrocks from visiting Irish leaders, for instance.

In the meantime, however, Ireland had transformed. Domestically, politicians undermined the power of the Catholic Church before child abuse scandals finally broke it. Internationally, Ireland joined the common market and then the eurozone, breaking its traditional (and frankly neocolonial) relations with the United Kingdom and triggering a process of accelerated modernization and economic growth. As Ireland became secular and wealthy, the successful conclusion of talks between governments and militants in Northern Ireland—brokered largely by the United States—meant that it also became far more peaceful.

U.S. involvement in the Northern Ireland question marked the deepest engagement in the island’s politics. Pushed by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, President Bill Clinton appointed a special envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who built on the foundations that Irish and British governments had earlier laid to shepherd the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

That task took high-level engagement and attention to detail, as when Clinton granted Irish Republican Army leader Gerry Adams a visa to the United States as a show of good faith over U.K. Prime Minister John Major’s objections. As Foreign Affairs wrote in 1996, this marked the first time a White House had “overtly supported Irish demands against Great Britain on the Irish Question” since the 1866 midterms, when President Andrew Johnson supported an Irish American invasion of Canada.

The Good Friday process also marked the last time that a U.S. administration would engage with Ireland as a modern country—as something more than a photo opportunity to impress clover-wearing, Riverdancing, green Guinness-drinking voters back home.

Yet whatever they may say in private, Irish leaders do not publicly object to being treated as the political version of Lucky Charms cereal. After all, playing along with U.S. presidents’ political games has long built them a lot of political capital. Even more important, however, is the fact that failing to correct American misperceptions about Ireland helps Dublin tremendously – which gives the Irish good reason to keep up the tradition of putting on the poor mouth.

If Americans treat Ireland as a poor country—and not as one that has a GDP per capita of $84,000, compared with the United States’ $62,500—that helps Irish diplomats lobby for special treatment. (Fair warning: The small size of Ireland’s population and its role in global finance make these comparisons difficult—but under just about any comparison, Ireland is fairly well ensconced in the high-income group and has the fourth-highest ranking on the United Nations Human Development Index, well above the United States.)

The most visible benefits come through gestures like preclearance arrangements for travelers to the United States passing through Irish airports (arranged by Ted Kennedy decades ago). The more important form comes from U.S. corporations’ use of Ireland as a veritable tax haven.

Given Ireland’s reliance on financial and other services to support its booming economy, avoiding greater American attention to how far and how fast Ireland changed from its traditional status of poor relation was only a benefit. Even the economic disaster of the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Ireland profoundly hard, has not changed that generational trajectory of Ireland’s economic rise—and the global crisis did not give U.S. policymakers time to worry about the Irish economy. Irish leaders are currently getting a taste of what that attention might produce because of sudden America First-inspired scrutiny of whether the U.S.-Irish economic relationship actually is being conducted fairly.

There are signs, though, that the coziness of this relationship is beginning to break down. Ireland’s historic cultural transformation—ending the ban on abortion and greatly easing divorce—is in many ways symbolized by Varadkar himself. The youngest premier in the republic’s history, Varadkar is also half-Indian by descent and is partnered with another man, Matthew Barrett.

Varadkar has apparently found it is either morally necessary or politically expedient—or both—to push back against traditionalist American politicians. In March of this year, Varadkar and Barrett breakfasted with Vice President Mike Pence and his family, where the Irish leader pointedly called out discrimination against sexual minorities. That’s a far different relationship than Kennedy or Obama ever had with an Irish leader. And Varadkar’s frostiness toward Pence mirrors the gap between Ireland’s current progressive image and the largely older, conservative, and white-identifying traditional Irish American constituency.

The relationship also faces other strains. Rising tensions in Northern Ireland, including the recent murder of a journalist, reflect a sense that the Good Friday Agreement brokered by Mitchell may no longer hold. The threat of a hard Brexit and the reimposition of a hard border between the republic and the North jeopardize both political and economic stability.

And it’s unlikely that American leaders will approach any new departure in the way that Clinton, Ted Kennedy, or other earlier leaders did. As U.S.-Ireland Alliance and former Ted Kennedy aide Trina Vargo writes in her new book about the U.S.-Irish relationship, Irish American identities just aren’t as relevant as they were decades ago, when politicians like House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan kept up Irish influence. (Full disclosure: The U.S.-Ireland Alliance sponsors the George J. Mitchell Scholarship Program, under which I received an M.A. in politics from University College Dublin 15 years ago.) Voters simply don’t vote based on whether their senator will be “good for the Irish.”

Congressional leaders do pay attention to Ireland, as evidenced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Dublin in April. But even the optimistic take in the Irish Times that Pelosi’s trip means that Ireland still has “a special seat at the table” had to admit that long-seated members of the Friends of Ireland congressional group were not benefitting by their relationship with Dublin. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseated one of the most senior members of that caucus, Rep. Joe Crowley, last year.

Many members of Congress, like Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.), still wish Ireland well. In the absence of any major U.S. strategic interest in Ireland (which isn’t even a member of NATO), the greatest Irish leverage in Washington comes from fraying ties of family and identity. But that is far from the level of sustained influence and power that earlier generations wielded.

For its part, Ireland also does not particularly feel close in its diplomacy to the United States. U.S. investment and tourism are welcome, of course, but the focus of Irish diplomacy is squarely on Brussels. The leading Irish foreign-policy think tank, for instance, is tellingly named the Institute of International and European Affairs, and its most significant recent publication about Ireland’s relationship to the United States concerns the implications of the 2018 tax law for the Irish economy. The question consuming the country at the moment is how to cope with the possible damage to the Good Friday peace treaty caused by the insouciance of hard-line Brexiteers toward the Irish border.

Trump’s loutish use of his visit to Ireland to promote his golf course, then, may be gauche—but it isn’t a threat to a deep or significant U.S. relationship. To the contrary, the great secret of U.S.-Irish relations is that, right now, there isn’t much of a there there.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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