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When Irish ties are waning: Our diplomatic struggle in the United States

Ireland still punches above its weight on Capitol Hill, but the fight is becoming harder

In early 2021, one of the main think tanks in the United Kingdom warned that London had lost the battle for influence on Capitol Hill following Brexit and the damage it could do to the Belfast Agreement.

In essence, the British had been outgunned by the Irish lobby.

The Policy Exchange report argued Britain had struggled in Washington, had failed to project its own narrative regarding Northern Ireland and to counter accusations that it was endangering the agreement.

It pointed to warnings by Joe Biden that the Good Friday accord could not become a casualty of Brexit and pledges by speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and other senior politicians that there would be no bilateral UK/US trade deal if the agreement was undermined.

The Policy Exchange review focused mainly on what it perceived as the weaknesses of the British embassy operation in Washington. However on the flipside, it highlighted the relative success of Irish diplomats.

It praised the manner in which Irish and Israeli representatives had “successfully navigated Congress”. The British, by contrast, had “under-performed”.

It said the Irish embassy had been “highly proactive in engaging with the media, diaspora groups, think tanks and a small number of champions in Congress” on the issue of Brexit, trade and the threats to the Good Friday agreement.

Whether by coincidence or not, and Policy Exchange is a conservative grouping with strong ties to the Conservatives, there has been a greater intensity in the British engagement on Capitol Hill in more recent times.

Mick Mulvaney, former Republican congressman and acting chief of staff to president Donald Trump, this week seemed to share the thrust of the Policy Exchange assessment.

‘Out-diplomatted’

In a conversation with The Irish Times, he recalled being asked after a speech on one occasion whether he believed “the British are being out-diplomatted by the Irish”. He said he had replied: “Yes. I think they are.”

However as the Taoiseach prepares to visit Washington next week, there are concerns among some in Irish America that Irish influence may wane in the years ahead.

The Biden administration is probably the most "Irish" since, at least, that of John F Kennedy 60 years ago, if not ever.

However, the flow of Irish immigration to the United States has slowed to a trickle, causing concerns about whether the next generation of political leaders in America will show the same interest and involvement in Irish affairs.

One of the key issues in understanding how the Irish were successful in relation to securing support for the Belfast Agreement after Brexit is to recognise that the political system on Capitol Hill operates differently.

John Feehery, political communications strategist and former press secretary to Republican House speaker Dennis Hastert, said inertia was a very powerful force in Washington and that in normal times it was a lot easier to stop things from happening than to get things passed.

He said that it only required a few influential members of Congress, especially if they had legislative responsibilities, to make statements about protecting the Good Friday accord.

However securing immigration reform – another key Irish objective – was different.

Allowing Ireland to access surplus visas under a programme originally created for Australia, as was being sought by the Government, fell through in 2018 when one senator would not agree to the initiative.

Leverage

Any proposed UK/US trade deal after Brexit would have to be approved by Congress and its powerful Ways and Means Committee, irrespective of the view of the White House, thus providing leverage which could be used to oppose measures put forward after Brexit that could be seen as jeopardising the Good Friday agreement.

Speaking to The Irish Times, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Democratic Congressman Richard Neal, said the attitude of Irish-American politicians was not governed by sentimentality, or whether voters in their districts had Irish backgrounds.

Instead, he argued that the Good Friday accord is seen for its own merits by both Democrats and Republicans as a major achievement in US foreign policy and all sides want to see it survive and flourish.

Neal said the agreement should be a template or example for the rest of the world to follow. He said any effort to diminish its success would be “a terrible mistake”.

Niall O’Dowd, the Irish publisher based in New York, said the Irish-American community had been revitalised by Brexit.

“Brexit got people going. English nationalism will always have a counter in Irish nationalism. People saw Brexit as a British dirty trick on what we had thought was a very fair and acceptable solution in the Good Friday agreement. Any attack on the Good Friday agreement is considered very poisonous over here.”

Asked whether politicians were reflecting the anger among Irish Americans at a perceived threat to the Good Friday agreement, he said: "We raised $4 million for Hillary Clinton. Not too many people know that. It was purely on the basis of Northern Ireland and what her husband had done and what she had done. We can raise money for people. That is the one thing we can do. It is not about the voting, it is about influencing."

Ireland and Irish interests are not just promoted in Washington by the Irish embassy.

Regular briefings

Sinn Féin, which has a strong and well-funded operation in the United States, also has long-standing relationships with politicians in the United States and provides regular briefings for those on Capitol Hill and in the administration.

And then there are organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which has been active not just on immigration, but also on Northern Ireland. It recently hired former Fine Gael TD John Deasy as its head of government affairs.

However, the British have become more active. Last year, an officer from the Northern Ireland Office was sent to the British embassy in Washington, initially temporarily, to reach out not only to politicians on Capitol Hill but also to the administration and to wider Irish America. This arrangement has now been formalised for a three-year period.

Separately, the UK government also appointed former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland as special envoy to United States on Northern Ireland affairs.

British ministers have become more visible, too, not just in Washington but across the US. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis was in Washington last month and will return for the St Patrick's Day festivities next week.

Neal has noticed the aggressive British lobbying efforts: “I pick up information from time to time that the British government [representatives] are visiting more congressional offices than they have in the past. But I also know they do not seem to be making any determined effort to qualify the Good Friday agreement, that is for sure. As in to change it.”

Mulvaney said the Irish were “natural diplomats” who were very good at building relationships and have punched above their weight. But it is based on a lot of hard slogging. Mulvaney remembers that after he was elected to Congress, just a handful of ambassadors reached out to him. One of those was from Ireland.

Often, Irish diplomats invite politicians to the embassy “for no reason other than just to hang out”, Mulvaney said.

“That is so nice and rare and lawmakers like that. We do not like being asked for something every single time we go out. To go over there three or four time per year and one time being asked could you help us with something, that is effective, that is human nature and the Irish are better at that than anybody. I was there last month and I am out of power. I am out of government.”

‘No agenda’

He said of Irish ambassador to Washington Dan Mulhall: "Dan rang me up and asked me to dinner. There was no agenda, it was just friendly and real, and the fact he was talking to people when not in power is a big deal and not enough people do that."

Feehery said the Irish and British had worked collaboratively in Washington to promote the Good Friday accord after 1998, but this fractured after Brexit.

“The British stepped up, they have lots of receptions at the embassy. The Irish tried to do the same. However, candidly, Covid was very bad for Irish efforts at outreach to Congress. So much of what they do is personal relationships. “

The pandemic also saw the Irish embassy lose key diplomats for a while.

“That was gone for two years, the personal stuff,” said Feehery. “It is really important for the Irish to pick it up a notch. If that does not happen, the bigger and more important relationship [for the US] with the UK will dominate.”

Ireland must adapt to a changing America, too, Feehery said.

“More and more Irish Americans are becoming republicans in the US political sense, and that requires the Irish embassy be much more sophisticated in developing relationships with Irish Republican Americans. And I do not think they have done that that well. I do not think they have cultivated them that well. I think Covid has set them back. But they need to improve on that.”

Different types of Democrats are being elected now, too. New York politician Joe Crowley, one of the biggest supporters of Ireland on Capitol Hill, lost out to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He is now a lobbyist.

Feehery added: "Once Richie Neal [the Ways and Means Committee chairman] goes, there are not that many champions amongst Irish democrats. There are a few – Joe Biden, obviously –but the parties are changing and the Irish embassy has to be much more sophisticated in building bipartisan ties, and relying on history is fine but establishing a sophisticated business relationship based on mutual interest is a smarter way to go."

Neutrality

Congress has always been the place where the Irish have done best. The State Department "by and large is pro-British and has been forever", said Feehery. "The British are one of our most important allies and they are not neutral. Irish neutrality is fine for the Irish but it does not do us much good."

Meanwhile, Ambassador Mulhall said the Congressional Friends of Ireland had “stood strong” to keep the Irish border open after Brexit

“I will never forget April 2019 when I accompanied a congressional delegation to Ireland led by Speaker Pelosi and Irish caucus co-chair, Richie Neal. The powerful statements they made in London and Dublin about the need to retain on open border made a real mark and helped to foster agreement between the EU and the UK in December 2020,” he said.

Immigration reforms will remain a key Irish demand in the years to come. The flow from Ireland has slowed to a trickle: just 100 Green Cards a year, immigration advocates believe, with many of them going to people who already have some other form of residency permit.

New York immigration lawyer Lorcan Shannon forecast that the Irish will also face greater future competition for H1B visas, which are aimed at young professionals, with their chances of success lengthening.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told the Dáil last autumn that the Government would "continue to pursue the E3 Visa bill", which was unsuccessful in 2018..

Mulhall said “we continue to explore every avenue to open up legal pathways for Irish people to spend time in the US, but this has been complicated by the fact that immigration issues are politically highly contentious these days.”

The impact of new Irish blood has been profound, O’Dowd worries: “If you go to Gaelic Park in New York now, 95 per cent of those playing will be Irish American as against Irish-born. That is transformational. You will not hear an Irish accent on the field in Gaelic Park. I find that extraordinary.”

‘Slowing badly’

Deasy, who played a key role in trying to negotiate the E3 deal in a previous life as a Government special envoy , said: “The flows of people between the two countries is slowing badly and the new changes to the H1B application process are going to make it harder for any Irish person looking for a work visa, even after a US company sponsors you.”

“At the very least, we need to implement the US retiree scheme (an initiative to allow Irish-Americans over 55 to retire to, or work in, Ireland). That’s been collecting dust in the Department of Justice for the last four years. It’s fairly limited in scope but it’s proactive and we badly need to incentivise the flows again.”

Moves are under way to generate interest in Irish affairs among future generations of politicians .

An initiative championed by the Seanad cathaoirleach Mark Daly targets State legislatures across the US, including those who seek to head to Washington in coming years.

Politicians with Irish heritage are numerous in the north-east and mid-west, but not elsewhere: “We do, however, have huge numbers of Irish Americans in state houses, assemblies and state senates.”

Over the past 12 months, Daly, along with prominent Irish American politicians such as Neal, have promoted the new American Irish State Legislators Caucus.

This now has a presence in all US states, with ceremonies for St Patrick’s Day planned in many legislatures. And it is aimed at both Democrats and Republicans, and not just to those with Irish heritage, but anyone interested in Ireland.

Daly said the senate president pro tem in Oregon, who is African American, is one of the co chairs of the caucus while another politician in Florida born in Haiti is also involved.

Montana state senator Shannon O'Brien is one of those involved. Twenty five state legislators from Montana are planning to travel to Ireland later in the year, and they will mark St Patrick's Day next week.

The bid to reach beyond those considered to be typical Irish Americans is supported by Ambassador Mulhall, who pointed to “the recently-formed African American Irish Diaspora Network, which connects with a hitherto insufficiently understood part of the global Irish”.

Optimism

Despite the challenges ahead, there is optimism, too.

Sinn Féin representative to North America Ciarán Quinn said: "Irish America is changing. That changing demographic has not diminished the relationship between Ireland and the US or the influence of Irish America. The Irish-American identity spans generations."

“Support for the Good Friday agreement and progress in Ireland unites a divided Congress. It is not about votes. It is about pride in the success of the peace progress. It is about identity. The Irish side of the hyphen in Irish-America will be important for generations to come. “

Mulhall, too, is optimistic about the next generation of Irish Americans.

“They have a different appreciation of Ireland. Many have been to Ireland repeatedly or follow Irish events online. Last year, I launched a Young Friends of Ireland Group, which has great potential. Our future links with America will be more diverse and will need more active cultivation, but that they will be no less important or effective than they have been in the past,” he said.

Neal said that even though the direct links to Ireland may go back in time, the interest continues to span the generations.

“My granddaughters are superb Irish dancers. My children are very interested in it and their children are very interested in it.”

Mulvaney believes the ties will remain strong, too: “Is there a chance it winds down over time? I guess it is possible, it could happen, but being Irish American is so hard-wired into our DNA it would take a long time or something dramatic for it to change. For example, it survived Ireland being neutral in World War II – I can’t imagine anything being a bigger challenge in a relationship than that we are not going to fight with you – but we got through that easily.”