(Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland)

Column ‘The Irish-American vote may well decide the outcome of this election’

Irish-American voters are still a vibrant political entity and are important in the race for the White House, writes Larry Donnelly.

THE EVE OF 6 November, as Americans and people all over the world eagerly anticipate the outcome of one of the most hotly-contested US presidential elections in recent memory, is an opportune time to consider what role Irish-American voters play in the American political process in 2012. My own thoughts are shaped inexorably by my upbringing. I grew up in East Milton, an Irish-American enclave on Boston’s southern fringe, where almost all of my friends had at least one Irish-born parent.

While the Irish in America have achieved extraordinary triumphs in virtually every field of endeavour, we are perhaps best known for our success in the rough and tumble world of politics. The Kennedys are the archetype of the Irish-American political family, but there are hundreds of Irish-American families around the US who have shared in that success.

Irish-American families

I should know because I come from one of these families.  Since emigrating to Boston from north Galway around the turn of the last century, my family has been heavily involved in Democratic politics. My great uncle, John Kelly, was President of the Boston City Council and his brother, Frank Kelly, also served as a city councillor and later as Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General of Massachusetts. Indeed, one Boston political historian recalls that the WASP establishment lived in fear that the Kelly brothers would get their hands on the key to City Hall!

They were outdone as Irish-American politicians, however, by my uncle, former Congressman Brian Donnelly. Uncle Brian is esteemed in this country for his Donnelly Visa legislation that allowed thousands of young Irish men and women a chance at a new life in the US in the late 1980s. And he was the “go to guy” on Capitol Hill on all things that mattered to Ireland and to Irish people during his seven terms representing what was then the “most Irish” congressional district in the US.

Close ties

This success of Irish-Americans in politics and the close, constantly cultivated ties between our two countries are rightly celebrated by Irish people. The access enjoyed by politicians from this tiny island on Europe’s western fringe – on St. Patrick’s Day in particular – to the President and Vice-President of the United States, as well as to the leadership of the United States Congress, is unparalleled and the envy of much of the rest of the world. To me, it is axiomatic that Irish politicians have this access because Irish America is still a vibrant political entity.

Although I believe that the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the Atlantic share my view, it has been called into question in recent years by a vocal minority. The most prominent questioners have been Trina Vargo of the US-Ireland Alliance and political journalist Niall Stanage. Vargo believes that the “old” relationship is broken and that her Alliance can lead efforts to revitalise things; Stanage seems motivated by a desire to debunk the “myth” of the political power of Irish America.

The relationship is not broken

I profoundly disagree with their assessments. But they do have a point when they say that Irish America is not a monolithic political entity. Traditionally, Irish-Americans had aligned themselves with the Democratic Party. Yet over time, a substantial number have drifted into the Republican camp. Some have drifted because they oppose the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch on social issues like abortion; others have drifted because they have become successful financially and now embrace Republican tax policy.

The first-ever poll of Irish-Americans on this year’s presidential election, carried out by IrishCentral and Amarach Research, bears this out. In fact, the poll shows that Irish-Americans only favour Barack Obama’s re-election by 51 per cent -48 per cent. And the comments posted by IrishCentral readers about the poll are instructive. Those who support Mitt Romney cite their opposition to abortion and to Obama’s economic philosophy. Those who support President Obama cite the traditional Irish-American affiliation with the Democratic Party and Governor Romney’s bias toward better-off Americans.

These Irish-American voters – representative as they are of the crucial Catholic vote – may well decide the outcome of this year’s presidential election. More conservative on social issues and still more populist on economic issues, it is their votes that the candidates are now fighting over in Ohio in the campaign’s final hours.

It is my hope that those Irish-Americans whose preference isn’t set in stone or who remain undecided will keep in mind the experience of their forebears and re-elect President Barack Obama.

Larry Donnelly, a Bostonian who holds US and Irish passports, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and legal counsel to Democrats Abroad Ireland.  He is a political columnist for and you can follow him on Twitter.

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