Biden’s Irish Roots Promise a New Kind of Special Relationship
But it won’t be a “great bonanza.”
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
It’s been 170 years since U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s great-great grandfather Patrick Blewitt fled the Irish potato famine and settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But Biden’s Irish roots and Catholic faith are a cornerstone of his self-identity, an embrace that the Emerald Isle has enthusiastically reciprocated—setting nerves on edge in London that Brexit Britain could find the special relationship with the United States a little less special.
Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, tweeted that Biden “hates the UK” after a video clip surfaced of Biden rebuffing a question from a BBC journalist by saying, “I’m Irish.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisors were, according to the New York Times, concerned that the British leader’s warm relationship with outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump could put him on the back foot with Biden. Widening the gap between the two governments, John Taylor, a member of House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of the British Parliament, described U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as simply “the Indian” in a tweet earlier this month.
While outgoing Trump was vocal in his support of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, Biden has long made known his distaste for the move—and for Johnson. Speaking at a fundraiser last year Biden described the prime minister as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
Biden has made clear where his red line is with London, and it runs through the island of Ireland. On the campaign trail, he said that any future trade deal between the U.K. and the United States would be contingent on London’s respect for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. The U.S.-brokered deal did away with the hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
But the Irish border has become a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations. Johnson’s government recently reneged on an agreement with Brussels to respect the agreement and the open border, raising fears of a return to a hard border and a renewed conflict. Biden raised the issue with Johnson in his first chat with an overseas leader as president-elect.
And Biden’s emphasis on that agreement is one area where his Irish roots definitely seem to come into play.
“I think President Biden’s understanding and instincts will stem specifically from his identification as Irish and Irish American and understanding of this issue,” said Anne Anderson, who served as Irish ambassador to the United States during the Obama administration, when Biden served as vice president.
“He’s visited Ireland, he knows these issues backward, and we don’t need to educate him in any way about the Good Friday Agreement and its importance to the north-south relationship on the island,” she said.
But even though Biden and Democrats in Congress are expected to toe a hard line on Brexit and the Irish border, experts and former Irish and American diplomats say that any concerns of favoritism are overblown. While Biden’s priorities may align closely with Dublin’s, it mostly has to do with a shared worldview, rather than heritage.
“We believe in the same kind of things that President-[elect] Biden believes in,” Anderson said.
Even as Britain lurches ever closer to a no-deal exit from the European Union at the end of next month, Biden’s known opposition to Brexit doesn’t necessarily have to derail the decades-old close relationship with London, even as Johnson’s big election win last year has turbocharged die-hard Brexiteers who were more comfortable with Trump in office.
“I don’t think the president-elect will hold it against the United Kingdom. They had an election, they voted, that’s what they decided, and we’ll deal with it,” said Kevin O’Malley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland during the Obama administration.
Many experts expect Biden’s Irish roots will actually help cement better relations among the three countries and Europe.
“I think it’s totally compatible for someone to be Irish American and that be an important part of who they are and to also have a close relationship with the U.K., because Ireland also wants a close relationship between the European Union and the U.K.,” said Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Ireland, which has been actively trying to mediate between the U.K. and the rest of Europe as Brexit reaches its end game, is diplomatically punching well above the weight its 5 million population would suggest. Earlier this year, the Economist wrote that Ireland has “a good claim to be the world’s most diplomatically powerful country” on a per capita basis. Ireland has an embassy in every EU country, and the Irish government is one of the biggest spenders in Washington when it comes to foreign lobbying.
In June, Ireland beat Canada to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council, having thrown in performances by Riverdance and U2 to boost their chances. In July, Ireland’s Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe clinched the leadership of the Eurogroup, a club of eurozone finance ministers.
Ireland’s extensive diaspora, making up some 10 percent of the U.S. population, as well as its cultural soft power have long proved potent diplomatic tools. Ireland’s taoiseach, the country’s prime minister, is the only world leader with an automatic invite every year to the Oval Office, for St. Patrick’s Day—and not just for green beer. O’Malley, the former U.S. ambassador, noted that the meetings are “full-on substantive” and are followed by a lunch at the Capitol with the speaker of the house, and then a big reception with Irish Americans and Irish government and commercial interests. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
Those commercial ties have turned a relationship once anchored in kith and kin into something else. Ireland has become a magnet for U.S. tech and pharmaceutical giants attracted by low taxes and a well-educated, English-speaking workforce. Pfizer, Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter all have a significant presence in Ireland.
Still, Irish eyes might not be smiling forever. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, have been vocal in their support of Ireland’s border stance, but neither is getting any younger.
“Biden, Pelosi, and Richie Neal are that generation’s last gasp. They’re not going to be around forever,” said Trina Vargo, a former foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Ted Kennedy, founder of the US-Ireland Alliance, and author of Shenanigans: The US-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain Times.
Another type of generational turf-cutting is also apparent. Rep. Joe Crowley, a big Ireland booster, was ousted from his New York seat in 2018 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. More recently, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, another rising Democratic star from New York, unseated Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former co-chair of the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs.
Even with backers still in power, Ireland’s diplomatic clout in Washington has its limits. For decades, immigration reform has been a top priority for successive Irish governments, as over 10,000 Irish citizens are estimated to be living in the United States without legal status. But these efforts have yielded little. The latest attempt to secure more work visas for Irish citizens was approved by the House in March, but it now languishes in the Senate. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton squashed the same bill two years ago.
At Ireland’s embassy in Washington, Ambassador Daniel Mulhall—who, unlike his British counterpart, weathered the Trump presidency without incident—is cautiously optimistic about Ireland’s prospects now.
“It’s a good thing that we will have a president who has this kind of depth of understanding of Irish affairs, which is bound to be beneficial to us,” Mulhall said. “Not that I’m expecting any great bonanza. I’m clear about that.”
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack