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Pat Leahy: The Ulster-Scots lost America. Northern Ireland unionism faces a similar fate

Enduring White House commitment to the Belfast Agreement and now the Windsor Framework suggests unionists must reflect on that significant fact

Joe Biden’s visit this week didn’t really underline his Irishness, but only because it was so evident already. Biden’s Irishness is ancestral, tribal, cultural — but it’s also political; and so a great and tangible asset to this country.

The economic advantages of Ireland’s relationship with the US are so obvious they don’t require enumerating. Politically, if Biden’s White House is not as involved with Northern Ireland on a day-to-day basis as Bill Clinton’s was, that’s because the times no longer require it. But the closeness between Dublin and Washington, and the level of common purpose between the two administrations on the North, remains remarkable.

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By contrast, one of the unforeseen effects of Brexit was to unite the US and Irish governments in their disdain for the opportunist vandalism of Boris Johnson, alienating Downing Street from its most important ally. British prime minister Rishi Sunak has been striving to mend relations with the White House but there is no mistaking the enduring, if eased, froideur emanating from Washington. Arlene Foster, now a commentator on GB News, asserted that Biden “hates the UK”. This is dim-witted tabloidology; Foster is proving as sharp a political analyst as she was effective at leading her DUP party.

And yet the question of Biden’s attitude to the UK hung around all week. Clinton once fretted about annoying the British over Northern Ireland; Biden seems to half-relish it. Aides joked that the meeting between Sunak and Biden had been downgraded from a full bilateral meeting, or “bilat” in diplo-speak, to a coffee between the two — a “bilatte”. Not sure the British saw the funny side of it. It also emerged that Biden would not attend the coronation of King Charles. Not sure the British are loving that, either.


Most Irish president ever? Has to be, right? Clinton’s interventions over a sustained period were more substantial — though Biden’s and the rest of the congressional Irish mafia’s “one wrong move and the trade deal gets it” threats after Brexit were as blunt a reminder of Washington’s Irish priorities as Clinton ever delivered. John F Kennedy was a shining beacon to millions of Irish people, but he was a lot closer to the British establishment — not least through personal family connections — than to Dublin’s politics. Biden’s tendency toward misty-eyed touraloora (ah go on, you love it) and his incontinent quoting of Irish poetry is matched by a hard-edged political commitment to protecting the peace process against Tory calculation. In the background is a keen awareness that while the Irish vote is a lot more splintered in the US than it used to be, that makes it all the more important to compete for. A faint hum of an old, old anti-Englishness is occasionally detectable.

If Irish America is entitled to swagger at Biden’s green-jerseyism, it’s because it confirms the sheer greenness of the whole thing: Irish America is the triumph of Irish Catholic nationalist America. US politicians are genuine when they speak of the importance of reconciling the “two traditions” in Northern Ireland. But it’s always clear they mean: “our one — and the other one”. This year in a tub-thumping speech at the Ireland Funds dinner in Washington, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer noted that “the Irish people know a thing or two about unwelcome intruders”, leaving a mildly narked Jeffrey Donaldson to remark that the senator should brush up on his history. Well, maybe. But so should everyone else.

The truth is that Biden is very definitely not the most Irish president of the United States; he’s the most Irish Catholic president. But long before the Famine-era wave of immigration brought to America millions of the wretched refuse of our teeming shore, the Ulster-Scots Protestant Irish were already comfortable in the White House. Only four first-generation Americans have become president; three of them — Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and Chester A Arthur — had fathers who emigrated from Ulster. (The fourth was Barack Obama) In all, 17 of the 46 presidents have Ulster-Scots-Irish heritage. Three of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were born in Ulster; two more were the sons of Ulster men. The declaration was printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap from Strabane, Co Tyrone. Interestingly, Biden made extensive reference to this part of America’s Irish heritage in his speech at the University of Ulster, something that was ignored here but warmly welcomed by Donaldson and prominently reported by the unionist-supporting Newsletter.

So how did Biden’s lot come to define Irish America and wield such political power? By the slow and deliberate accretion of influence and amity. By clever and sustained leadership, from boardroom to council chamber to Senate floor. By making friends, cutting deals, accepting fudges and working compromises. By dedication, in other words, to doing politics. Meanwhile, the Scots-Irish never contested and so disappeared.

There is a lesson, I think, for unionism today. And especially for the DUP, as it considers what way to turn on the Windsor Framework. One way lies the option of doing politics — imperfect, messy, difficult, but offering a way to find a common future in Northern Ireland; the other way lies what? If Donaldson turns down the Windsor deal, he’d better have a realistic plan for something better.

But there is also a larger challenge coming for unionism, as the constitutional question edges its way closer to the centre of politics on the island. Nationalism is slowly beginning to realise that demographics on its own won’t win a united Ireland and that it must engage with the middle ground and win the argument with people. Can unionism appreciate that it must engage in this debate if it is to have any hope of winning it? You can’t win a game to which you don’t turn up.

The Ulster-Scots lost America a long time ago. Unless they realise why, their political descendants in Northern Ireland will eventually lose at home too.