Armed with shamrock and family trees, Dublin faces changed US landscape

Ireland’s carefully cultivated ties with the Republican Party are about to be tested

Speaking to a gathering of Irish-Americans in Dublin on Tuesday in one of his final engagements, US ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley spoke warmly of the enduringly deep roots of the bond between Ireland and the United States.

“Our relationship with Ireland does not depend on any one person,” he said.

Nobody listening to him saw this as anything other than an allusion to the man who will today enter the White House.

Few ties are more important to the Government, or more assiduously cultivated, than the one with the US. However, Donald Trump’s triumph means old certainties are suddenly in doubt.

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For the first time in the postwar era, the US will be led by a man who opposes closer European integration, and one who regards Brexit – potentially one of the greatest shocks to the Irish economy in half a century – as a triumph.

From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to non-proliferation, Washington and Dublin may disagree. More importantly, there is Trump’s hostility towards undocumented migrants and his pledge to target multinationals.

“It won’t be dull,” says a senior Irish official dryly.

Initial Irish shock has given way to a determination to make the best of things. It will, says Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, give Dublin a chance to renew ties with the Republican Party.

Ireland has long had a special affinity with the Democrats, the party of the Kennedys and the Clintons, with high-profile Irish-Americans in senior ranks and policies closer to the centre of gravity in Irish politics.

Democrats dominate in places where Irish-Americans are concentrated, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The strength of the Republicans lies in the south and midwest, where the numbers claiming Irish ancestry are relatively low. Red states such as Iowa, the Dakotas, Indiana and Oklahoma have some of the smallest Irish-American populations in the country.

No deterioration

Officials, however, insist that relations with the Republicans have not been allowed to deteriorate during the Obama years.

"The Republican Party is something you have to work at a bit more. But we have always been careful in our relations with Congress to keep strong relations with the Republican side," one senior figure told The Irish Times this week.

Of about 80 members of the Friends of Ireland group in Congress, 34 are Republican. Since 2010, the Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives; and they have ruled in the Senate since 2014.

Facing a new regime, Irish officials in the US have been “working the contacts book hard” to build ties with new people, particularly in the three departments that matter most to Ireland: state, treasury and commerce.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was the fifth world leader to be called by Trump after his election, while the St Patrick’s Day shamrock ceremony, if it goes ahead, will make him one of the first European leaders to enter the Trump White House.

The two biggest issues are tax reform and immigration. Trump has said he would levy a 10 per cent one-off tax to encourage the repatriation of up to $2.3 trillion (€2.16 trillion) of the profits of US multinationals. Some of that is generated by US companies in Ireland, although, as one civil servant said, none of it may be taxable in Ireland “and none of it is sitting in Ireland, so bringing that money back to the US shouldn’t make any difference to us”.

A more direct threat to the Irish operations of multinationals, and the jobs they provide, would pose a much more serious problem for Dublin.

Expulsion

Fixing the border, as Trump puts it, and the expulsion of undocumented criminals matters more than immigration reform, notes one senior figure, adding that Obama’s deportations “had no impact on the Irish community at all”.

Even if mocked at home, Irish ancestry offers a useful entry point. Key Trump figures, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, counsellor Kellyanne Conway and spokesman Sean Spicer are all proud Irish-Americans.

Vice-president Mike Pence and national security adviser Mike Flynn have Irish ties, too, while others, including commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, have either married into Irish families or have done business here.

“Compared to most countries of our size in Washington, we have more to work with in these guys than lots of [others] have,” says another Dublin official.

The powerful house speaker, Paul Ryan, will be important, too. He has embraced his Irish heritage, bringing his family to visit distant cousins in Co Kilkenny and building ties with Ireland's Washington embassy.

Trump has no such connections, but he has some knowledge of Ireland, thanks to Doonbeg and a career spent in the Irish-American-dominated Manhattan construction industry.

“With Trump, his sense of you is going to be down to first impressions to a large extent. Does he know anything about you? Does he care? I wouldn’t like to overstate it, but we have something we can work with,” says one official.