Irish America has always had our back

Diaspora links have stood test of time and Irish Americans remain rightly proud of role they played in Belfast Agreement

The Biden administration’s support for the Windsor Framework stands in a long line of positive US engagement with Northern Ireland. It was not always that way. With the outbreak of conflict in the late 1960s, the US administration steered clear of any involvement, while many Irish Americans responded in the age-old manner by supporting what they saw as the nationalist cause. When the Irish government sought US support in the wake of serious rioting in Belfast and Derry, the state department responded that there was “no appropriate basis to intervene with regard to the domestic political situation” in another sovereign country.

Part of the evolution of the situation in Northern Ireland has been the gradual acknowledgment by London of the role of the Irish Government, and an acceptance that the US has an abiding interest in the subject driven by the political clout of Irish America. In its turn, Brexit has upped European Union engagement with Northern Ireland on account of its implications for the European single market.

Credit is due to John Hume for striking up a valuable rapport with Senator Ted Kennedy. Its initial harvest came in 1977 when Jimmy Carter made a presidential statement on Northern Ireland for St Patrick’s Day, the first of its kind. The Congressional Friends of Ireland was established in 1981, a bipartisan group that still exists. One of its founding members was a young senator from Delaware, Joseph Robinette Biden jnr.

I remember attending meetings with Senator Kennedy during the 1990s when the depth of his commitment to peace in Northern Ireland was so very obvious. I once had the privilege of spending a weekend at Hyannis Port as a guest of Robert Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and her family, where there was an unmistakable sense of how important their Irish heritage was to them. That is all the more impressive considering that the family’s Irish roots go back to emigrants who left Ireland in the mid-19th century.


Irish-American lobbying resulted in Clinton’s master stroke in appointing Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy. Whenever the Belfast talks looked set to run aground, Mitchell’s patience and resilience, schooled by long years in the US Senate, came to the fore.

At meetings in the Oval Office during the Clinton presidency, it was impossible not to be impressed by the depth of the president’s knowledge of Northern Ireland. Many times during the talks, word would go around that the White House was on the line. This meant that the world’s most powerful figure had picked up the phone to urge the talks’ participants to go the extra mile in search of agreement. His administration discommoded the British government by issuing a visa to Gerry Adams as part of a push to win support for the peace process among members of the republican movement.

Irish America found its voice again in the wake of Brexit. Congressman Richie Neal of Massachusetts often recalls visiting Ireland with speaker Tom Foley, when their bus was stopped and searched by an armed patrol as they crossed the Border. That drove Neal, as chair of the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee, to do all in his power to preserve our open border. In April 2019, he persuaded speaker Nancy Pelosi to join a congressional delegation on a visit to London, Dublin, Belfast and Derry (where they crossed the Border into Donegal on foot). The Irish Government treated the speaker as if she were on a formal state visit. She was seen by the President, taoiseach and leaders of opposition parties, and addressed the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas.

During her visit, the speaker said that: “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday [Belfast] accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the congress.” Those remarks were impactful because Brexit advocates were relying on a US trade deal to make up for losses in the UK’s trade with the EU. One way of looking at Brexit is as an effort to defy the logic of geography by seeking gains in trade with faraway countries to counter losses sustained on Britain’s doorstep, an attempt to test whether destiny is shaped more by ideology than geography. Always expect geography to win out.

The Biden administration has consistently spoken in favour of a negotiated solution to the issues raised by the Northern Ireland protocol. It has nominated former congressman Joe Kennedy III as its economic envoy, who will seek to foster economic links between the US and Northern Ireland, at a time when the North’s free access to the European single market makes it a more attractive investment location.

I know there are those who scorn Irish-American involvement, but that would be a mistake. I have found that Irish-American politicians like congressman Brendan Boyle take a serious interest in Ireland, often following developments closely through the Irish media. Some are undoubtedly better-informed about Northern Ireland than a lot of their British counterparts. Irish Americans remain rightly proud of the role they played in securing the Belfast Agreement. It is true that interest in the peace process is more instinctive among Democrats, but the Trump administration, though inherently sympathetic to Brexit, was also sensitive to the problems posed by the Border in Ireland.

The Belfast Agreement was a peace that, in WB Yeats’s words used in a different context, came “dropping slow” and with many strands that fed into it. One of those was a helpful US dimension orchestrated by Irish America. US support of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland is a story in which the interests of our small country, by dint of the skillful deployment of the soft power of its diaspora, has received an important hearing in the United States, even when those interests have been at variance with the preferences of one of the US’s prime allies, the UK.

It would, of course, be wrong to exaggerate the advantage conferred on Ireland by the influence of Irish emigrants and their myriad descendants. No US administration is likely to undermine its relationship with the UK for Irish-related reasons, but that will not stop them from making their opinions known as the Biden administration has done. The US and the UK have a comprehensive, multifaceted partnership that Ireland cannot match. But Ireland has its own unique rapport with the United States, anchored in the people-to-people links created by immigration and with an added economic dimension in recent decades.

While some may see Irish America as a waning asset as its Irish roots grow more distant, I would never count out a transatlantic attachment that has stood the test of time and a community that has invariably had Ireland’s back whenever we needed them.

Daniel Mulhall is Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a consultant with global law form DLA Piper. He is a retired Irish ambassador