The Democratic Party has a habit of falling for bogus Irish republican narratives
Published: 18 September 2020
If it wasn’t for that strain in the Democratic party that takes leave of its senses when it thinks about Ireland, we shouldn’t worry that President Joe Biden might wreck the possibility of a trade agreement between the UK and the US. After all, the issue that he, Nancy Pelosi and four senior congressmen have raised about the danger Brexit is posing to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is completely bogus.
Nobody in these two islands, except a handful of dissident republican terrorists hoping for an excuse to reignite a murder campaign, want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and if the EU insists on it to spite the UK, it would be the Republic that would have to build and and operate it.
But while the EU are happy to throw small nations to the dogs, as they did with Greece and indeed, Ireland during the Eurozone crisis, it would be weird for a Democratic administration to use its influence to endanger the peace process of which the party likes to claim partial ownership. But of course a Biden presidency could rely on any Irish government to exonerate it and blame the Brits.
There is between the Democrats and the Irish people a bizarre emotional bond since Ireland fell in love with John F Kennedy in the late 1950s and grew tall, like its diaspora, when he won the election in 1960. I was at university in Dublin when he was assassinated, and the mourning was epic. If you want to see a symbol of the Irish devotion to President John F Kennedy, go to Galway Cathedral, where you will see mosaic representations of Kennedy and Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 rebellion, praying to an image of the risen Christ.
It wasn’t just JFK: Ireland loved Jackie and Bobby and Ted and their descendants, and indeed, any Democratic politician who claimed the Kennedy mantle, especially if they managed to dredge up a few Irish great-grandparents and produce the appropriate emotional rhetoric. Nixon’s, Reagan’s and Bush’s Irish roots counted for nothing in the popular mind, but Obama’s maternal great-great-great grandfather made him one of us.
Bill Clinton was a fantastic hit, for though he scored zero on the ancestor front, he more than made up for it by the remarkable interest he took in Northern Ireland and the love he expressed for the island and – mainly – its nationalist inhabitants. And to oblige Ted Kennedy, to whom he owed a considerable debt for his support throughout the crisis over Monica Lewinsky, in 1993 Clinton appointed his sister Jean Kennedy Smith as ambassador to Ireland, where she embraced the republican agenda and effectively acted as their ambassador to Washington.
Before the Agreement, few American politicians approved of murdering for Ireland, but astute and relentless lobbying by Sinn Fein succeeded in making them a serious force in Washington which has imbibed their MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) narrative of Irish history.
It is almost exclusively Democratic politicians who were the most enthusiastic lobbyists in Washington for Irish nationalism, but a noisy exception is Republican Peter King, who has compared Gerry Adams to George Washington. He cooled on violence after 9/11, but is still very pro-nationalist and one of the four congressmen who along with Nancy Pelosi are threatening to stop a trade deal if the legislation to amend the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement goes ahead.
The other three are all chairmen of influential committees: Eliot Engel – who has no Irish ancestors but plenty of Irish-American constituents in New York – lobbied Reagan in 1988 to grant asylum to an IRA terrorist and has been a friend of Adams for a long time, Richard E Neal, Chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee was devoted to Martin McGuinness, and though William R Keating lacks Irish connections, he has a Massachusetts Irish nationalist constituency to keep sweet.
Some quiet Irish-American businessmen are rather keen on Trump, but in the corridors of power Irish nationalism is rarely challenged. Biden often brags about his pedigree as “a proud descendant of the Finnegans of Ireland’s County Louth” with a great-grandfather from County Mayo. In a tweet, he said: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
Does he understand the Agreement? Probably not. Is he a sucker for the republican narrative? Yes. It is time for UK diplomats to get the rhetoric right and the truth out.
NB Apologies for the inaccuracy about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton owed Kennedy a debt for political support in the Senate.