Why did Nancy Pelosi visit Ireland?

Congressional delegation trip comes as Irish-US relationship is in flux

As the publication of the Mueller report laid bare, the rot in Washington runs deep. A world of quid-pro-quo backscratching, backroom dealings and deep cynicism won’t surprise anyone but to see it spelled out so clearly breaks the long tradition of euphemism that sustains Washington.

That’s why the United States approach to Ireland, a country that doesn’t fit the bill of a traditional ally (no defence ties, no oil, no large consumer market) might confuse outsiders. Politicians signalling support for Ireland doesn’t carry the same political weight as say, support for Israel does, so why did Nancy Pelosi, the person third in line to the US presidency, take the time to do so?

The simplest reason is often the correct one, and one look at the makeup of the House Speaker’s delegation shows that long-standing family ties with the US still give Ireland a special seat at the table.

Pelosi’s visit, and her strong support of the Belfast Agreement were no doubt meant sincerely. And the contrast of Pelosi standing up for international agreements involving the US while President Donald Trump tears them up – as he did with the Iran deal and Paris climate agreement – certainly didn’t hurt her. Pelosi reminds the world that the US was an honest broker once, and could be again.

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‘Issue of the heart’

Joe Crowley, whose decades-long career as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives was abruptly halted by the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his district, chaired the congressional ad hoc committee on Irish affairs for 20 years while also being a long-time member of the bipartisan Friends of Ireland caucus. For him, caring about Ireland was never transactional. ”It was really an issue of the heart for me,” Crowley says. “It’s something that I was passionate about.” He’s confident that Congress will hold firm in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement. He trusts in Pelosi. “There’ll be no going back,” he said.

Ireland’s challenge is to continue to build relationships in a volatile political climate. Crowley was not the only member of the Friends of Ireland to fall victim to the progressive wave – Michael Capuano, a 10-term congressman from Illinois, lost out to Ayana Pressley in another shock result. Other “Friends” could be in trouble in future elections as progressive groups attempt to bring the Democratic party further left by running primary challenges in safe Democratic seats held by more centrist candidates. New York congressman Eliot Engel, a long-time supporter on Irish issues, has been named as a target for the 2020 cycle. Congressman Richie Neal, who travelled to Dublin with Pelosi, is in the top 10 recipients of business PAC money in Congress, a funding vehicle that has been attacked by his party’s left.

Although Pelosi’s delegation were all Democrats, that’s not exactly a fair representation of where Irish America’s political loyalties lie. The fortunes of Irish-American citizens in the US have mirrored the fortunes of white America writ large. Irish-Americans are more likely to be older, better off financially and better educated than the average American.

In politics, that has translated to a more conservative shift in recent years. White Catholics, of which Irish-Americans are included, favoured Trump over Clinton in 2016 and have broken for the Republican candidate in every presidential election of the 21st century. In the 2018 midterm elections, the White Catholic vote went 54-45 in favour of Republicans even as the Democrats experienced a landslide victory in the House.

In a politically divided Washington, this split is useful to Ireland, who can find sympathetic ears in both parties – from Mike Pence and Mick Mulvaney at the White House to Richie Neal and Brendan Boyle on Capitol Hill.

Family ties

But it won’t be lost on observers that Pelosi’s wasn’t the youngest delegation. Even with Brendan Boyle (42) in attendance, the average age of delegates was 60. If family ties are what is keeping the US-Ireland bond strong the question is whether there enough Irish-Americans coming through the ranks to sustain interest in the relationship?

Crowley isn’t worried. “Don’t be fooled by last names. I think there will always be a Friends of Ireland caucus in the House of Representatives.”

The Government seems to be hedging its bets or as Ireland ambassadors to Washington Dan Mulhall puts it: “We have a core – which is that strong traditional connection – and around that core other things are being built.”

In recent years Irish politicians have ramped up their personal engagement with multiple trips to the US that go beyond the St Patrick’s Day photo opportunity. Events with Irish-American organisations still form an important part of the itinerary, but ministers have now added stops at more traditional temples of the US establishment including to Ivy League universities and think tanks.

It’s all part of a strategy that seeks to build on where Ireland already has strong connections, and go further.

Colm Quinn is an Irish journalist based in Washington. He previously worked for the Center For Strategic and International Studies