St Patrick's Day in White House is not mere shamrock diplomacy


ANALYSIS:Ireland will have extraordinary access to the highest levels of US government today. Brian Cowen will meet a US president whose politics and world view are much closer to contemporary Ireland than his predecessors, writes DENIS STAUNTON.

THE ANNUAL shamrock ceremony at the White House has become such a familiar fixture in the political calendar that it’s easy to overlook the extraordinary and unlikely nature of today’s events in Washington.

Starting with a bilateral meeting in the morning and ending with a lavish reception this evening, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth will devote much of his working day to one of the smallest countries in Europe – one that is not even a military ally of the United States.

When Brian Cowen meets President Barack Obama in the Oval Office for almost an hour this morning, they will be joined by vice-president Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Jim Jones. After the shamrock ceremony, the Taoiseach and the president will join House speaker Nancy Pelosi for lunch on Capitol Hill, with dozens of congressmen and senators, including chairmen of some of the most powerful committees.

In the evening, the president will host almost 400 people at the most elaborate party the White House has seen since he took office. During the day, Clinton will meet the North’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister and Obama will find time to drop in on a meeting between the Northern leaders and Jones.

Those in Ireland who dismiss the White House celebration of St Patrick’s Day as a simple effort to curry political favour with the 40 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry are mistaken. Irish-Americans are almost as likely to be Republicans as Democrats, they can be found at the furthest reaches of each end of the political spectrum and everywhere in between, and few cast their vote on the basis of Irish political issues.

St Patrick’s Day in the US is, above all, a cultural event and an opportunity for Americans to connect with part of their national story shared by many with no Irish origins – the experience of fleeing poverty and oppression in search of dignity and opportunity.

Obama’s ancestral origins in Ireland are so remote as to form only a marginal part of his identity but his political outlook is more in harmony with contemporary Ireland and with Ireland’s foreign policy traditions than most of his predecessors. He is a committed multilateralist who opposed the US military adventure in Iraq and who favours diplomatic engagement over confrontation with adversaries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

His domestic agenda of improved access to healthcare and high-quality education, a progressive tax regime and stronger government regulation of the economy is closer to the European mainstream than the free-market fundamentalism that has dominated American political discourse in recent decades. The current US administration boasts a unique concentration of expertise in Irish affairs, starting with Biden and Clinton but including foreign policy advisers Denis McDonough, Samantha Power and Tom Donnelan and White House counsel Greg Craig.

Irish officials have adroitly cultivated political relationships in Washington over many years but, as Ambassador Michael Collins acknowledges, in a review of Irish-US relations announced recently by the Government, further steps are necessary to ensure that it continues to flourish.

The global economic upheaval and a new outlook in Washington have left Ireland’s low corporate tax rate and light regulation of the financial services industry – long the country’s most potent attractions for US investors – looking a little shop-worn at best and potential liabilities at worst. Ireland is not generally viewed by US legislators as a tax haven but Obama has promised to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, a pledge that could affect rules that allow US companies to avoid paying US tax on overseas profits. Meanwhile, inadequate regulation of financial services is widely blamed for the excessive leverage that led to the economic meltdown and the US administration wants international co-ordination of tougher rules for banks and other financial institutions.

The US will continue to play an important role in supporting the political institutions in the North for as long as such help is needed but Ireland’s experience of conflict resolution is also viewed as a valuable resource in Washington.

The other high-profile bilateral issue, the status of undocumented Irish immigrants in the US, is likely to be resolved as part of a comprehensive immigration reform which now has broad support in Congress.

Perhaps the biggest threat to US inward investment and Ireland’s privileged place in Washington is uncertainty over our relationship with the rest of the European Union after the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. Membership of the EU and the euro zone is essential to Ireland’s attractiveness as a European base for US companies, along with the availability of an educated, English-speaking workforce.

Diplomatically, Ireland can serve as a valuable bridge between Washington and Europe, a role that could be enhanced now that the US has a president who is popular in Ireland and an administration with foreign policy goals that are closer to Ireland’s.

Few in Washington understand the intricacies of EU treaty negotiations but the US foreign policy establishment is almost united in its support for European political and economic integration.

A second rejection of the Lisbon Treaty would not only have unpredictable consequences for Ireland’s relationship with its European partners but also for Irish-US relations.

The Ambassador’s review calls for an expansion of Government support for Irish cultural activities in the US, including the opening of a cultural centre in New York and an arts space in a new Embassy building in Washington. The review notes that the current state of the public finances probably means that such projects cannot be launched immediately, but delaying too long would almost certainly be a false economy.

Irish cultural products and the cultural identification of millions of Irish-Americans with Ireland are the most powerful drivers of American goodwill towards Ireland. As our poets, musicians, dancers and other artists perform this evening at a White House event that makes bigger countries writhe in envy, it is time their importance to our national interest is more fully recognised at home.

Denis Staunton is Washington Correspondent