“Somewhere out there is the next Bill Clinton,” Leas-Chathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann Mark Daly says.
Mr Daly is the driving force behind an organisation known as the American Irish State Legislators’ Caucus (AISLC), which is seeking to foster links between Ireland and politicians working at a more local level in the United States.
Mr Daly says that Mr Clinton, whose influence played a crucial role in getting the Belfast Agreement over the line 25 years ago, became engaged in Irish affairs when he was governor of the state of Arkansas.
He believes in the absence of any large-scale Irish emigration to the US since the 1980s, and with personal and family ties lengthening as a result, a new initiative was needed to strengthen relationships with Ireland among politicians at an earlier stage in their careers.
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He says Democrat Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania is the only current member of the US Congress to have parents born on the island of Ireland.
The initiative may have started out to promote friendship and to support Irish strategic goals such as the Belfast Agreement. But the links with state legislators may be evolving in a way that could generate more economic benefits.
There are indications that some individual states are now looking at establishing their own trade offices overseas, potentially including Ireland.
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Brian Patrick Kennedy is a Democratic representative in the Rhode Island general assembly and the incoming president of the national conference of state legislators in the US.
He is scheduled to be part of the group travelling to Ireland in August, which is billed as the largest gathering of Irish-American state legislators in history. The event will coincide with the Notre Dame versus Navy American Football game in the Aviva Stadium.
The gathering will, in part, aim to show support for the Belfast Agreement on its 25th anniversary this year.
The national conference of state legislators in the US last year signed a partnership agreement with Mr Daly’s organisation.
He believes that the links between state legislators and Ireland could lead to greater economic benefits for all concerned.
“New Jersey has put forward legislation to set up some form of trade commission and West Virginia is doing the same,” Mr Kennedy tells The Irish Times.
“We recognise the UK is there. But the reality is that within the European Union, Ireland is the closest ally we have. It is English-speaking. For our small state of Rhode island to do business with EU countries, we think we should be doing everything possible to try to work closely with Ireland in order to promote economic activity going forward.”
Mr Kennedy says he had recent discussions about this issue with the commerce secretary in Rhode Island.
“The governor has proposed money in the state budget and is looking at some potential countries where we would like to try set up some form of trade office. The names (the commerce secretary) gave me were Ireland, Israel and Taiwan.”
Overall, there are more than 7,300 politicians working at state level across the US. Some have Irish heritage, others have no blood ties but have an interest in Irish affairs or culture.
Some will undoubtedly move on from local politics and be elected to Washington.
Mr Daly’s initiative was to attract as many state legislators as possible and to encourage their interest in Ireland while still on the more local stage, such as happened with Mr Clinton.
The Department of Foreign Affairs through its network of consulates in the UN also carries out similar work.
This week as part of a St Patrick’s visit to the US, Mr Daly will not only be in Washington but also at meetings with state politicians in New York, Massachusetts and Florida.
The AISLC, which was founded in 2021, is open to everyone – Democrat and Republican – who has an interest in Ireland and not just those of Irish heritage. Mr Daly says there is now leadership of the AISLC in all 50 states as well as in locations not traditionally linked to Ireland such as the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam.
It sends its monthly newsletter to more than 1,300 state legislators in the US.
All former taoisigh are members of the AISLC honorary board.
The goal of the organisation was to foster and strengthen the longstanding relationship between the US and Ireland to the mutual advantage of both countries. However, as it has grown, Daly believes there is potential for it to facilitate growth in business as well as educational links.
“US ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin has spoken extensively that the new ties that bind the two countries will be relationships built through partnerships around economics and education,” Mr Daly says.
He says following Brexit, Ireland is the main English-speaking country in the EU and these new links and connections can act as a gateway to foster greater economic and educational links.
He says state legislators have a key role in determining the education budget in their regions and would have a key ability to connect colleges with their counterparts in Ireland – leading to potential research partnerships.
Mr Daly says that since the establishment of the AISLC, delegations from 37 states have visited Ireland in less than two years. He says each one meets the Department of Foreign Affairs and the American Ireland Chamber of Commerce “to discuss the development of economic ties and how companies in their state can benefit by having a gateway to Europe through Ireland”.
Each group of visiting politicians also travel to Northern Ireland to see Stormont and to meet people of both traditions.
“One of the key elements is showing a new generation of legislators the peace dividend because the US got involved and remained involved.”