What would a Biden victory mean for Ireland?
Washington DC think tank expects ‘super close’ ties between a Biden White House and Dublin
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with US vice president Joe Biden at Government Buildings, Dublin, in 2016. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Though publicly the Government seeks to maintain a studied neutrality, they’re fooling nobody and they know it. The universal preference among all the parties and the entire upper echelons of the Government is for a Biden victory, for reasons of politics, policy and personal preference.
“Well, there’d be a visit in year three anyway,” jokes Mark Garrett, former chief of staff to Eamon Gilmore, tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, citing the visits of John F Kennedy in 1963, Bill Clinton in 1995 and Barack Obama in 2011 – all in the third year of their first term.
Garrett also expects a White House that would be instinctively friendlier to Ireland. Biden is of Irish Catholic heritage and often talks up his Irish roots in Louth and Mayo, where former taoiseach Enda Kenny brought him to play golf during a visit in 2016. He quotes Seamus Heaney at any and every available opportunity.
But what would this actually mean? “I think the style of the administration would be very different,” says one former diplomat. “They’ll be more orderly and polite. There’ll be warmer words. But I can’t imagine that Biden will do anything dramatically different on the trade front.”
Other sources made the same point: that while a President Biden would not make such constantly hostile noises about international trade as Trump has done over the past four years, his policy would have to take account of the changed domestic environment. Trump’s “America First” trade policy might not have delivered him a second term, but it is popular among many of the blue-collar workers that Biden has sought to woo as the Democrats’ natural constituency.
“Trade has been a winner for Trump,” agrees Garrett. “Biden will have to embrace that.”
Dubliner Thomas Wright, director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC think tank, says that while a Biden administration would be unlikely to seek to revive the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership trade negotiations with the European Union, it would want to work closely with the EU on a number of economic-related fronts, including co-operation against China on trade issues and taxation of multinational companies.
The latter would cause alarm bells to ring in Merrion St, whose reliance of US multinationals for corporation tax income has only increased as domestic sources of revenue collapsed due to the pandemic.
However, Wright believes that there would not be a specific targeting of Ireland, but rather a re-engagement by the US with the OECD Beps process, or perhaps a direct bilateral initiative with the EU.
He says that senior figures in a likely Biden administration have become convinced that multinational taxation is an important economic issue, and believe there may even be opportunities for co-operation with Republicans on the issue. “Republicans have no interest in helping Amazon avoid tax,” Wright says. “Senior people [in a likely Biden administration] write and talk about this a lot.”
A Biden administration, he says, would be likely to lean in Ireland a lot in its engagements with the EU, especially since the departure of the United Kingdom. He foresees a “super close relationship” between a Biden White House and Dublin.
Government sources in Dublin see a Biden White House as a “double-lock” on the Brexit issue. While the important thing for Ireland is that the House of Representatives maintains its position that there will be no trade deal with the UK if London tramples on the Belfast Agreement and the open border that followed it, there is satisfaction that the Biden White House would be less instinctively friendly to Boris Johson’s government than its predecessor.
More than one person also pointed out that the traditional St Patrick’s Day trips to the White House by the taoiseach – assuming they are possible in the age of coronavirus – would be better fun. States have interests, of course. But in politics and diplomacy, relationships matter.