Challenging times for US-Ireland relationship


AGENDA FOR IRELAND:AS THE world holds its breath in anticipation of what Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office may bring amid unprecedented global challenges, not even his most ardent Irish cheerleaders expect Ireland to feature prominently in the already bulging in-tray awaiting the new president in the Oval Office, wrties Mary Fitzgerald

Not that Obama has ignored the ties that bind Ireland and the US. On the campaign trail last September he promised to put in place policies that would fortify what he termed “this indispensable relationship” while his campaign team spoke of strengthening cultural, trade and educational links between the two countries and deepening “the peace that so many have worked so hard to establish” in Northern Ireland.

Irish officials watching the new administration take shape over the last two months have been heartened by the fact that several of its most senior figures are people with long-standing connections to Ireland.

Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, has Irish roots, and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, needs little introduction to Ireland.

Clinton’s future deputy at the state department, Jim Steinberg, was a regular visitor to Belfast and Dublin when he served as deputy national security adviser to Bill Clinton. One of the Clinton staffers who helped guide the Northern Ireland peace process, Steinberg still stays in contact with a number of politicians and officials on both sides of the Border.

Samantha Power, the Irish-born Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize winner who left her position as one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers after she called Hillary Clinton a “monster” in the heat of last year’s election campaign, is expected to stay very much in the loop. Power’s husband, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, has been selected to lead Obama’s regulatory reform efforts.

When it comes to leverage on Capitol Hill, Ireland can still call on several old faithfuls who are close to Obama, such as senators Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd.

“There’s no shortage of people who both officially and unofficially care about Ireland and would make sure, if something arose that needed the attention of senior officials or the president himself, that it would be easy to make it known,” says one source close to the Obama campaign.

Obama has said that the annual St Patrick’s Day celebration in the White House, which has become something of a tradition since the early 1990s, will continue, and it is expected that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will receive a formal invitation to this year’s party within weeks of the new president taking office. Apart from the usual handshake over a bowl of shamrock, such a visit would allow Cowen to take soundings on how the US-Ireland relationship will play out under the new administration.

SINCE OBAMA’S historic victory last November, the Irish Embassy in Washington has been assessing the signals coming from the president-elect’s transition team and reporting back to Dublin on what the Obama presidency may mean for Ireland. “We’re quite positive . . . about what has transpired post-election in terms of engagement with the new administration,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin told The Irish Timesin a recent interview.

During the election campaign Obama’s rhetoric on certain issues led some Irish politicians to argue that a John McCain presidency would be better for Ireland. In particular, Obama’s pledge to make it more difficult for American companies to shelter overseas income from taxes levied by US authorities, while offering incentives for those same firms to create jobs at home, prompted much speculation on the detrimental impact such policies would have on US investment in Ireland.

But a candidate’s promises on the stump can often translate into something quite different in office and Irish officials are adopting a wait-and-see approach while remaining poised for an intensive lobbying effort if it appears that Obama will follow through on his campaign rhetoric.

Many believe Obama will initially set his sights on targeting tax havens rather than legitimate low-tax regimes such as those in Ireland and other countries.

“We’ve been down this road before . . . previous administrations made similar pledges which we worked to modify . . . and to present the Irish position,” Martin says, referring to the prospect of Obama holding to his campaign promise. “Obviously it’s an issue that we will have to work on in terms of our diplomatic efforts . . . to make sure that we get results that are amenable to Ireland.”

There is a sense too that the US-Ireland relationship as a whole is entering a new era, no longer so firmly anchored in the Northern Ireland peace process or as strongly tethered to the dynamics of Irish America as it has been in the past.

Last year the Taoiseach ordered a “strategic review” of the transatlantic relationship as seen through Irish eyes, and it will be interesting to see how any reimagining of US-Ireland ties will converge with the Obama presidency.

The question of what to do with the Guantánamo Bay detention centre may present one of the first opportunities for the Obama administration and the Irish Government to work together. The incoming president has made it clear that he considers the closure of the facility a priority and one that should be addressed in the very early stages of his term in office.

It is expected that the new administration will turn to Europe for help in closing Guantánamo, asking EU member states to resettle exonerated detainees who remain at the centre because they cannot be returned to their countries of origin due to the risk of ill-treatment or torture. Mr Martin has said he is in favour of Ireland accepting such detainees, but the issue has yet to come before the Cabinet.

In Ireland, as in other corners of Europe, it is hoped that Obama’s promises on issues such as Guantánamo, together with the enthusiasm his presidency has sparked, will go some way in easing the anti-American sentiment that grew to unprecedented levels during George W Bush’s eight years in office. Time will tell.

  • Mary Fitzgerald is Foreign Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times