Many Sinn Féin supporters in US unsettled by Trump victory
Adams congratulates president-elect, pays tribute to defeated opponent Hillary Clinton
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: addressed €500-a-head Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in New York on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
“Up the Republic! An Phoblacht Abú!” said Gerry Adams, and with that the crowd in the ballroom rose to applaud and cheer.
For the hundreds who gathered for the €500-a-head Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in the Sheraton hotel on Times Square in New York on Thursday night, however, the celebratory mood was tinged with anxiety. Donald Trump’s shock victory has unsettled many Irish-American leaders, who were counting on having a familiar Democratic ally in the White House.
“The mainstream body [of Irish Americans] in middle America were probably Trump. They’d be conservative,” said Seán Mackin, a Belfast Republican who came to the US in 1983 and works in the construction industry.
“Most people who would be politically active with Ireland would have been pro-Hillary.”
The construction industry was heavily represented among the Sinn Féin donors at the Sheraton dinner. Off the record, a number of them said they normally voted Republican, but chose Clinton over Trump partly because Trump was known in the business not to treat his contractors well.
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“I never thought he’d get the electoral votes. A lot of people thought Hillary was a shoo-in, they didn’t go out to vote. The people who were voting Trump went out with a vengeance.”
Not everyone saw Clinton as a straightforward choice. John Gallaher, a property developer who moved to New York in 1991, supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and found it “extremely challenging” to switch his allegiance to Clinton. If Mitt Romney had been standing against Clinton, Gallaher would have supported the Republican.
He is apprehensive at the thought of the Christian right influencing Trump on social questions, “but I am hoping that the strength of the institutions and the constitution will rein in the rhetoric”.
In his address, in which he made the case for Irish unity and warned of the dangers of Brexit for Ireland, the Sinn Féin president was careful not to criticise Trump, while paying tribute to his defeated opponent.
“This week the American people elected president [elect] Trump as the 45th president of the USA and I congratulate him,” Adams said to muted applause. “One of the greatest challenges facing the president-elect will be to represent all the people of the USA and to play a positive and progressive role in world affairs. That includes Ireland. We especially need the continued focus and active support of Irish America.”
Clinton, from her time as first lady to her term as secretary of state, was “very engaged with Ireland” and always remained focused on the peace process, Adams said, to loud cheers from the floor. “She has been a very good friend to Ireland. We extend our thanks to her and her family, and we wish her well for the future.”
For Irish-American leaders, just as for everyone else in the US, Trump remains a policy enigma. “I have no feeling at all for Donald Trump. We haven’t had any feedback at all. He’s a mystery,” said Mackin.
But amid the uncertainty, some were insistent that all was not lost. For Ciarán Staunton, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, much will hinge on who leads key congressional and Senate committees, and whether the Republican Party decides to make a play for minority votes by offering a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
“Eight years ago, we elected a Democratic president, we had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, with the promise from them that we were going to have immigration reform. That never happened,” he says. Instead, Obama was “a deporter-in-chief”.
Perhaps a Trump administration could even spring a surprise, he said. “Remember, only Nixon could go to China and bring them in from the cold, because he was such an anti-Communist.”