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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 21 March, 2019
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Opinion: The Irish American community is still an influential force in US politics

A recent book claims that the Irish American influence in Washington is waning but top politicians wouldn’t still be rolling out the green carpet if it was, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IT’S NOT SURPRISING given my background, that around this time of year, my thoughts turn to the strong ties between Ireland, the country of my ancestry and now my home, and the United States, where I was born and formed.

Irish politicians rightly avail of the extraordinary access and consequent opportunities in the corridors of power on Capitol Hill and far beyond engendered by 17 March.

In 2019, the overseas trips of government ministers have been overshadowed and curtailed by Brexit and the deadline for either resolution or extension looming in roughly two weeks.

Because this country’s crucial connections with its closest neighbour are likely to be forever altered, no matter how Brexit ultimately shakes out, travelling wherever powerful doors are open may be more important than ever.

Shenanigans

No doubt timed to coincide with St Patrick’s Day, a new book, entitled Shenanigans: The US-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain Times, by Trina Vargo, founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance, was published recently. 

Excerpts from the book have garnered headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

Vargo claims that Bill Clinton voiced displeasure at the decision by the US-Ireland Alliance, not to short-list his daughter’s boyfriend for the Mitchell Scholarship programme which the US- Ireland Alliance administers. 

Vargo is a trenchant critic of what she sees as an Irish American relationship that is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.

In her book, she endeavours to fully explain and expose those failings as she sees them – as well as to settle a few scores. 

While some of her criticisms are meritorious and her alliance has done good work in four areas – business, education, culture and entertainment – one is struck by the negativity that pervades the 239 pages of the book. 

The first sentence of the first chapter references the “nonexistent Irish American vote and [its] diminishing political influence.”

Later,  Vargo describes a proposal for a mutually beneficial agreement that would allow American citizens to live and work in Ireland as “nonsense” and attests that she has “never heard of any Americans, illegally in Ireland, fighting to stay.”

Her conclusion claims that the “vast majority of Irish Americans aren’t that interested in Ireland and even fewer are involved.”

Irish America 

It is, of course, a fact that Irish America is a heterogeneous and amorphous political entity.

Although traditionally Democrats, many have now drifted toward the Republican Party because they are appalled by the former grouping’s lurch to the cultural left or having achieved financial success, they are drawn by the GOP’s low tax policies.

As Catholics and oftentimes centrists, they remain key swing voters in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Vargo might also be surprised to learn that in some places including where I grew up just south of Boston, Irish surnames dominate among local officeholders and casting ballots according to this ethnic identity persists.

If Irish America were politically impotent, it is improbable that elected officials in America’s capital city and around the country would press a collective pause button in mid-March to extol their Irishness and welcome Irish visitors eager to develop new and myriad mutually beneficial associations.

Politicians are known for self-interest, not altruism.

Other countries would kill for what Ireland has in Washington, DC this week. It should not be eyed dismissively.

Moreover, the potentially impactful intervention of Irish American congressmen (including Democrats Richard Neal and Brendan Boyle and their Republican colleague Peter King) regarding Brexit and the Northern Ireland backstop -  signals that there are still ‘Irish issues’ that unites the community.

Vargo’s other claims are equally misguided. She doesn’t seem very well-acquainted with Irish America.

This leads her to grossly underestimate the number of people there who would dearly love either to live and work or to retire in Ireland. I hear from them frequently, typically with a “you are so lucky” lament.

I personally know hundreds of Irish Americans who have relocated to Ireland. Some have managed to stay while others have had to return with heavy hearts.

The highly publicised case of Megan Crowley is one example of one American who is fighting hard to stay in Ireland.

Vargo’s claim that the vast majority of Irish Americans aren’t interested in Ireland is manifestly debatable and directly at odds the lived experience of myself and my friends. 

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of that interest is the huge numbers of Irish Americans who chose to visit and holiday in Ireland. The number of trips from the US to Ireland grew considerably last year as Aer Lingus expanded its routes and other carriers also entered the lucrative market.

There is also growing interest in the GAA and other Irish cultural organisations in the US, even in unexpected locales. Irish festivals attract enormous crowds from Alaska to Florida too. The internet makes it easy for Irish Americans to monitor closely what’s happening back home in current affairs and sport and to reach out to their cousins.

One can only wonder how many of this large and ever-expanding cohort of individuals and groups Vargo actually knows. Did she seek them out before forecasting their imminent demise?

Immigration

Vargo is at her most controversial on the issue of immigration.

Vargo observes that young Irish men and women have not immigrated to the US in big numbers for many years. She opines that the flow of people from here to there cannot be the basis of our future relationship. That may be partly true, yet this is precisely what created the relationship.

She is at pains in the book to defend a puzzling 2007 piece she wrote in The Irish Times arguing against a “special deal” for illegal Irish migrants.

These Irish people, according to Vargo, did not need to emigrate because jobs were plentiful at home.  Those of us who knew those young men and women who emigrated were astonished and disgusted that the head of an organisation called the US-Ireland Alliance would oppose any effort to help them. 

Many of them hailed from rural or inner-city communities that never heard the Celtic Tiger roar, while others had left home long before the boom. 

Unlike our ancestors who came before them, they are forced to live in the shadows and are denied chances.

Vargo notes that she has not been forgiven by some erstwhile backers for the piece. And she never will be. A decade plus on, I vividly recall the rage I felt when reading it.  

Nonetheless, when thinking broadly about the two countries I am lucky to call home, the transatlantic flow is remarkable on virtually every other front conceivable.

While eternally dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of policies that will facilitate better human flow – to allow more Irish men and women to chase the American dream and Irish Americans to return – and being equally vigilant and forward thinking with respect to various challenges on the horizon, I still believe that there is greater cause for optimism than pessimism.

Evidence for positivity is omnipresent this week and one prominent naysayer can’t undermine that.

Whether you are in Ireland, the US or anywhere else around the world, happy St Patrick’s Day to you all!

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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