HILLARY CLINTON will not, after all, be the White House's special envoy to Northern Ireland. The story of the US secretary of state's imminent appointment of herself to that role proved, like so much else that emanates from Irish America, to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors, writes NIALL STANAGE
The flurry of speculation about Clinton’s possible new title was set off by an unsourced article on an expatriate website. It was then picked up and propagated by large swathes of the Irish media. Their credulity did the public no favours.
The Clinton saga also illuminates larger truths, however: about the sheer wrong-headedness of so many prevalent perceptions of Irish America, and about our national delusions of grandeur regarding where Ireland ranks on the American political agenda.
Clinton’s state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, holed the original reports below the water-line, stating starkly, “she is the secretary of state, not a special envoy”.
Then Clinton herself stepped in to remove any shadow of doubt. In an interview with the BBC, she said that she did not “see the need for someone full-time” to help the parties in the North resolve any lingering problems. She added that the resolution of those problems would be “really up to the parties themselves, and certainly in consultation with the British government and, to a lesser extent, the Irish Government”.
She did talk about her previous involvement with the peace process, and she acknowledged that she and her team were “going to be as helpful as we can” – but this statement of the obvious fell far short of any suggestion that she would become a special envoy.
It is tempting to think of this saga as yet another addition to the inglorious canon of “silly season” stories – insubstantial yarns that are perennially used to fill column inches and broadcasting airtime during the summer lull.
But there is more to it than that. The widespread and largely uncritical dissemination of the original tale was made possible by the survival of two intertwined fictions: that the Irish American community has serious political muscle, and that Ireland is at the forefront of American political debate.
After all, if the Irish media were not labouring under these illusions, the story would have been met with much greater scepticism. Obvious questions would have been asked about why a secretary of state dealing with enormous challenges in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea and China would assume a special title to hold the hands of Northern Ireland’s political parties as they continue their glacial progress. And, given that her existing office is so powerful, what would her self-appointment as a special envoy have achieved in any case?
The reality is that Irish America does not matter very much. Certainly, there are an enormous number of Americans – some estimates run as high as 43 million – whose family tree has roots in Ireland. But it is a profound mistake to suggest that those people are deeply engaged with contemporary Ireland, or that, when it comes to American politics, they represent a discrete voting bloc.
The Belfast-born academic Dr Feargal Cochrane, who lectures in politics and international relations at Lancaster University, has written about how references to the total number of Americans with Irish ancestors “obscure a great shallowness of interest [in Ireland] for the vast majority”.
Speaking to me in 2007, Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at New York’s Baruch College, asked rhetorically, “Is there really a sense of Irish-Americanness when it comes to voting?
I would imagine that the only time a lot of those [43 million] people consciously think of themselves as Irish is when they drink to excess” on St Patrick’s Day.
Last year’s presidential election may well have been the most analysed in history. Countless opinion pollsters tried to divine the feelings of every demographic group that could possibly matter. If you wanted to know what proportion of college graduates in Texas favoured Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in that states Democratic primary, there would be an exit pollster waiting with the answer. (Obama had the edge, by 56 per cent to 41 per cent.) Yet, after an exhaustive search, I could not find a single major polling organisation that had tried to examine Irish-American voting preferences. To them, the category was meaningless.
The unfounded faith in Irish-American political influence – and the things that flow from it, like the quixotic suggestion that the Irish Government should seek a bilateral deal with the US to help illegal Irish immigrants – only serves to distract from the real work that needs to be done to preserve a meaningful transatlantic relationship.
The goal of the Irish Government and State agencies with regard to the US should be very simple: to boost Ireland’s economic and cultural fortunes.
Irish businesses in innumerable areas, from tech to the emerging green economy, are ripe for American investment. And, while Ireland’s political power in the US has long since waned, its cultural reach is still considerable. It extends beyond Americans of Irish heritage, and it is does not begin and end with stars of the magnitude of U2 or Colin Farrell.
Hollywood’s enthusiasm for producing movies in Ireland once seemed destined to become a gushing revenue stream for the State. But, according to the most recent report by Ibec’s audiovisual federation, feature film production activity in Ireland fell by 77 per cent between 2006 and 2007, to €19.3 million. As recently as 2003, it was more than twelve times as high, at €244. 3 million
That is the kind of money Ireland is sorely in need of now. But every minute spent propping up the myth of a politically potent Irish America is a minute during which the potential of these areas is left to atrophy.
For far too long, official Ireland has allowed those who claim to speak for Irish America to lead it up the garden path. It needs to change course. The path leads not to a bed of roses, but to a dead end.
Niall Stanage is the author of Redemption Song: Barack Obama – From Hope to Reality(Liberties Press).