Election 2020

Ireland Is on the Ballot in Pennsylvania

Threats to the Good Friday Agreement—and culture wars—make this a critical constituency in a swing state.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading U.S. politicians visit the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading U.S. politicians visit the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in Derry, Northern Ireland, on April 18, 2019. Charles McQuillan via Getty Images

Nearly 100 years ago, Irish Americans formed the bedrock of the New Deal-era Democratic Party. Today, they’re up for grabs. And in a swing state like Pennsylvania, that matters—a lot.

Ireland hasn’t really been on the ballot since the 1990s, when decades of violence were put to rest by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Now, the fate of Northern Ireland’s tenuous peace process is again in question, thanks to the British government’s decision to rewrite its divorce agreement with the European Union, threatening a return to checkpoints and a hard border between Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom—and the Republic of Ireland—which is part of the EU. 

“People are probably paying attention to [the Northern Ireland issue] now more than at any point since the peace process in the mid-to-late 1990s,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a third-term Democrat who represents a district in the Philadelphia area.

In a state like Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a few thousand votes four years ago, a fraction of the Irish vote could be decisive.

“Of the swing states, Pennsylvania would be the one that the Irish would have the most influence,” said Stella O’Leary, the president of the Irish American Democrats, a political action committee. 

Ireland used to play an outsized role in U.S. politics. The Kennedy political dynasty ensured that Ireland was front and center on the national stage, while some leading politicians, including Republican Rep. Peter King, expressed strong sympathies for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Troubles. The FBI also had its hands full in the 1980s as it sought to thwart efforts by Boston mobsters to ship arms to the IRA.

Though Irish America’s political influence has since waned considerably, the Brexit train wreck has shifted attention during this election cycle, and many Irish Americans are concerned about its potential impact on Ireland.

Many Irish Americans are concerned about [Brexit’s] potential impact on Ireland. 

“Irish issues don’t necessarily animate all Irish Americans,” Boyle said. “But for a certain segment of Irish American voters in my district, it is enormously important.”

More than 16 percent of Pennsylvania’s population claims Irish ancestry—higher than the national average—and for many of those voters, warnings from experts have been eye-catching. Economists generally agree that Brexit could have a negative effect on the Irish economy as a whole, and political scientists warn that it threatens to undo the fragile peace Northern Ireland has grown into over the past two decades.

Democrats have leapt into the breach, as they did in the 1990s. Former President Bill Clinton famously diverged from long-standing Washington orthodoxy on Northern Ireland in the 1990s and took an active part in the peace process, going over the heads of irate British officials and cementing the party’s role as Irish America’s standard-bearer.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, is a Pennsylvania native who descends from Irish Catholic immigrants, as he touted in the first—and perhaps last—presidential debate on Sept. 29. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned the U.K. that threatening peace in Northern Ireland would kill the chance of any trade deal with the United States. Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which must sign off on any trade deal, has said the same, as has Biden.

“An awful lot of people associate their Irishness with the Democratic Party,” O’Leary said.

By contrast, Trump has taken little interest in Ireland. It took him until early this year to appoint former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney as the U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, a position established during the Good Friday negotiations to copper-fasten the U.S. role in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Trump has consistently praised Britain’s effort to withdraw from the EU and has stopped well short of matching Democrats’ condemnation of London’s recent efforts to abrogate the withdrawal agreement. 

“An awful lot of people associate their Irishness with the Democratic Party,”

But Republicans do have some key advantages—like the culture wars. 

Irish Americans “are all more conservative than the Irish,” O’Leary said. “We’re severely divided at the moment over that abortion issue.” For many urban and suburban Irish Americans, especially in Pennsylvania, Trump’s purported social conservatism aligns more closely with their immediate concerns, and his ambivalence toward Ireland is not a deal breaker.

That’s why the Trump campaign is focusing almost solely on domestic issues to court the Irish American vote. In a press statement announcing the launch of the Irish Americans for Trump political group, the campaign said the president’s reelection would ensure “four more years of historic job creation, lower taxes, and putting America first.” For many working-class Irish Americans with only vestigial links to Ireland, that resonates a lot more than Trump’s stance on Brexit or the Good Friday Agreement.

Still, for those voters who do prioritize the United States’ relationship with Ireland, the country’s sudden relevance could be a game-changer. 

“I think this is an important constituency,” Boyle said, “and I’m glad that the Biden campaign is paying attention to it.”

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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