One of the dilemmas facing the new Free State government 100 years ago was how to manage its relationship with the United States. Irish-American groups had a well-established fractiousness and during the War of Independence had been at loggerheads as evidenced by the rival organisations Friends of Irish Freedom and the American Association for Recognition of the Irish Republic. The Civil War generated more disillusionment.
Timothy Smiddy was in the US during that period as Dáil Éireann’s envoy to focus on finance and diplomacy. Denis McCullough of the Irish Republican Brotherhood embarked on an unsuccessful mission in March 1922 to bring rival Irish-American factions together, including those within yet another organisation, Clan na Gael. What did develop, however, was resoluteness on the part of Smiddy about establishing a formal political presence in the US. In May 1923 he wrote a letter to minister for external affairs Desmond FitzGerald, stressing “the imperative necessity of obtaining diplomatic recognition for the Irish Free State in Washington”. This, he surmised, would give international recognition to southern Irish sovereignty and “render ineffective the attitudes of the [anti-Treaty] Irregulars and their supporters in this country”. Both McCullough and Smiddy had been concerned about the impression being created in the American media that “the Irish are unable to govern themselves”.
Most of the 32 million Americans who claimed Irish ancestry in 2018 are exactly that: carrying an ethnic formation that reaches back generations but “is not being replenished from the country of origin”
In October 1924, Smiddy formally became the Free State’s Minister to the US, a significant diplomatic coup as the Free State became the first member of the Commonwealth to gain separate diplomatic representation in another country, meaning an end to reliance on the British embassy in Washington.
The most striking aspect of the US attitude to Ireland in subsequent decades, however, was its indifference and reluctance to complicate the Anglo-American relationship by wading into Irish controversies. For all President John F Kennedy’s warm words about his Irish ancestry, when Irish ambassador TJ Kiernan met him at the White House before his visit to Ireland in 1963 and raised the question of Northern Ireland, Kennedy, in the words of Kiernan, “looked as if another headache had struck him and asked me was he expected to say anything in public”.
It would take another three decades for the “greening of the Whitehouse” to occur, to use the title of Conor O’Clery’s 1996 book documenting the Clinton administration’s initial involvement in the peace process. There was much focus on the “visa wars” between London and Washington regarding the entry of Gerry Adams and other Sinn Féin representatives to the US, and the “box theory”, through which the US, as the “outside-the-box” player could use its efforts to break the stalemate. But in return, as O’Clery put it, there needed to be a “bounce” for the US administration.
President Joe Biden is of that greening school. That his plane landed in Belfast rather than London, for a perfunctory encounter with prime minister Sunak, seemed to suggest continued frostiness towards the British arising from the Brexit turmoil of recent years. In 2021, Biden adviser Charles Kupchan suggested that Brexit had made the UK much less strategically important for the US: “The United Kingdom alone does not cut a large figure on the international landscape ... So the relationship between the US and the UK will be fine. I’m just not sure it’s going to matter that much.”
For all the positivity around US presidential visits and the harnessing of Irish “soft power”, they also raise harder, long-term questions about Irish foreign policy
It could also be argued that the Irish-American dimension will not matter to a great extent in the future either; that there will be little in the way of “bounce”. Biden’s emphasis on the “Faith and Fatherland” aspects of his Irish heritage seems dated, but he is a product of his age. In the early 1990s, when Clinton occupied the White House, sociologist Herbert Gans was questioning the depth of ethnic identities and subsequently wrote of “late generation ethnics”. Most of the 32 million Americans who claimed Irish ancestry in 2018 are exactly that: carrying an ethnic formation that reaches back generations but “is not being replenished from the country of origin”.
As experts on Irish-America such as Liam Kennedy have argued, that does not mean their ancestry is irrelevant, but it has become more marginal and Irish-America cannot be considered as a coherent “bloc” given the variety of class, political and world views within it. Alongside that, the number of Irish-born naturalised American residents has been minuscule in recent years (just 144,588 recorded in 2010).
For all the positivity around US presidential visits and the harnessing of Irish “soft power”, the visits, during which presidents also address global questions – the cold war in 1963 and 1984 for Kennedy and Reagan, and Ukraine and EU defence and security for Biden – also raise harder, long-term questions about Irish foreign policy and in particular how neutrality is defined or altered. And US presidents are still urging some politicians in Ireland to fulfil their obligations in relation to self-governance, pleas that are growing increasingly jaded.