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St Patrick’s day - why so many US presidents like to say ‘I’m Irish’

Dr Richard Johnson, Lecturer in US Politics in Queen Mary's School of Politics and International Relations has written an opinion piece for The Conversation about Irish Americans and US foreign policy. He argues that US security interests will always come above personal identities.

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Joe Biden is President of the United States
Joe Biden is President of the United States

At a crowded campaign event early in the 2020 US election race, Joe Biden was asked for “a quick word for the BBC”. Half-incredulously, Biden glanced over his shoulder, replying, “The BBC? I’m Irish,” before flashing a smile and disappearing into an adjacent room.

The video gained substantial attention after Biden’s victory last November. It seemingly foretold an ominous shift in the US-UK relationship from a son of a British immigrant who loved the Queen (“A great, great woman,” oozed Donald Trump after a state banquet in 2019) to a man who wouldn’t even speak to the BBC on grounds of his Irish ancestry.

Biden is the most strongly identified Irish-American in the White House since John F Kennedy, the only other Catholic president. As vice president, Biden made jokes about banning the colour orange from his house (the colour of Northern Irish unionism) and, as he prepared his run for president, he met with the former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to discuss, as Adams put it, “UI” (a united Ireland).

Yet, relying on the simple fact of Biden’s ancestry to predict US-UK relations under his presidency is misguided. Irish nationalist sentiments run high in the US, especially among its large diaspora. US presidents frequently indulge these views, at least symbolically. But, in practical terms, they have had little impact on the US-UK relationship. Compartmentalisation, not sectarianism, has been the US’s foreign policy approach. In other words, the US does not see its relationship with the UK through the prism of the Irish question, and it seems likely to remain this way under Biden.

A question of identity

More than 30 million people in the US – about one in ten Americans – identify as “Irish”. The population of Ireland is less than 5 million, meaning there are over six times as many people in the US who claim to be Irish in the US as those living in the Republic of Ireland itself.

During the Troubles, this group was even larger – both in absolute and percentage terms. In the 1980 census, 40 million Americans identified as Irish, constituting about one-fifth of the US population (a higher percentage than African Americans or Hispanics at the time).

Republicanism has found strong support among the Irish diaspora in the US. At the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a Gallup poll found a majority of Americans supported a united Ireland, and just 17% thought that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.

During the Troubles, a variety of pro-nationalist interest groups were set up by the Irish diaspora in the United States. The most “militantly republican” group of the Irish lobby was Irish Northern Aid (Noraid). A 1981 federal court judgment revealed the group’s links to the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). Such groups were condemned by moderate nationalist leaders.

Other elements of the Irish lobby focused on change through legislation and executive action. They experienced some success but largely limited to symbolic gestures. In 1994, Bill Clinton reluctantly agreed to grant Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a 48-hour visa to visit New York to speak at a conference in New York, in spite of protestations from the British government.

Friends of Ireland (but also the UK)

The so-called Irish lobby has gained renewed attention in recent years. Before the UK secured a free trade agreement with the EU in December 2020, members of the US congress threatened to block a US–UK trade deal unless the UK–EU agreement maintained an open border between the north and south of the island of Ireland.

The House Committee on Ways and Means, which would scrutinise a US–UK trade deal, was chaired by Congressman Richard Neal (a Democrat from Massachusetts). Neal is co-chair of the Friends of Ireland Caucus, founded in 1981 at the time of the IRA prisoner hunger strikes.

In spite of this, US presidential administrations have sought a more balanced approach. The US considers the UK to be one of its most valuable and important strategic partners. US presidents work closely with British governments, while also offering symbolic affirmation for Ireland.

This leads to US presidents indulging in a bit of double-speak. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was shown by Jimmy Carter, who – on St Patrick’s Day 1976 – marched down Fifth Avenue in New York wearing a badge emblazoned with the slogan “England, get out of Ireland”.

Yet, the following year, Carter chose to make England the destination of his first international visit as president. Carter addressed a 20,000-strong crowd in Newcastle with the traditional, “Howay the lads”, which was returned with rapturous applause. Carter declared himself “to be a Geordie now”. Relations between Carter and Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan were reportedly good.

Biden’s references to his Irish ancestry do not distinguish him from other US presidents. With Donald Trump being the exception, nearly every president of the last half-century has identified as “Irish”, even when the evidence of such a link has been tenuous. Bill Clinton, for example, claimed to have Irish roots, but there is scant record to link him with Irish ancestors.

If measured by when their last ancestor left Ireland, Joe Biden is no more Irish than Barack Obama. Indeed, the Irish ancestors of Kennedy, Obama and Biden all left Ireland within a decade of each other, during or just after the Irish Potato Famine (1845 to 1852). The last ancestor of Joe Biden to be born in Ireland was his great-great grandfather, born in 1832, one year after Barack Obama’s closest Irish ancestor.

Nearly all US presidents like to say, “I’m Irish,” but traditionally this has not meant being anti-British. While Biden’s personal affinities are clear, we should expect him to follow his predecessors in placing US security interests before Irish nationalist affections.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Conversation on 16 March 2021. 

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