Sometimes Irish people seem to take the resolute support for Ireland from President Biden and the US Congress for granted as if it is the natural order. For a small nation, Ireland enjoys privileged access to power in Washington essentially because of the exceptional commitment of both powerful and ordinary Irish Americans to their heritage and to alignment on key policies.
However, for many of the first 100 years of independence, Ireland did not have a strong relationship with Washington. Up to the 1970s the US government consistently sided with the British government on Northern Ireland policy, declaring it an internal British matter. Indeed, as far back as 1919, President Wilson even refused to support self-government for Ireland at the Paris Peace Conference despite intensive lobbying from Irish America.
While the US was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the Irish State, Washington prioritized its relations with the British government, its ally in the First World War, and a global military ally for many years against fascism and communism.
Any hope of strengthening Ireland’s relationship with Washington dimmed in 1941 when Mr. de Valera’s government refused to join with the United States in its extended war against fascist Germany. That Irish bitterness against the British could overcome its repugnance for Adolf Hitler stunned Americans. American and Irish American servicemen found it hard to accept that Irish neutrality was more important than providing the United States with military bases in the South to protect their sailors and troopships on the Atlantic crossing to Europe.
Ireland exacerbated the rift with Washington in 1949 when it made ending partition a condition of joining the NATO pact against communism and Soviet aggression, again prioritizing antipathy for British rule in the North over a stronger relationship with the United States.
President Kennedy made a celebrated visit to Ireland in 1963, no doubt with a nod to the Irish American vote the following year. That visit improved relations between the two countries, leading to growing tourism and investment from America. In a speech to Dail Eireann, Kennedy praised Ireland’s role in the world but studiously avoided supporting the anti-partition position of the Dublin government.
Ten years later, American policy on Northern Ireland changed significantly to one of constructive engagement with Dublin prompted by a number of developments, including the angry reaction of Irish Americans to the brutal television images of British soldiers shooting civil rights marchers in Derry. Irish American leaders persuaded the US Senate to hold hearings on the killings which attracted widespread media coverage and influenced London to suspend the Stormont government.
What particularly shifted Washington’s approach to Northern Ireland was when Irish politicians changed their policy from calling for an end to partition to one of supporting equality for nationalists and unionists in the North. John Hume and Irish diplomats secured the support for this policy from the so-called Four Horsemen – Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senators Ted Kennedy, Pat Moynihan, and Governor Hugh Carey – and these powerful Irish Americans sold it to successive US Presidents.
The result was that at least four times since 1977, the positive pressure from American presidents for peace and equal rights in Northern Ireland has proven crucial to the peace process, persuading dilatory or hostile British governments to adopt a policy favoring equality between unionists and nationalists.
First, President Carter announced, despite British government and State Department opposition, that “the United States wholeheartedly supports peaceful means for finding a just solution that involves both parts of the community of Northern Ireland .and protects human rights and guarantees freedom from discrimination–a solution that the people in Northern Ireland, as well as the Governments of Great Britain and Ireland, can support.”
This was the first time ever that a US government supported the role of the Irish government in a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict.
Eight years later in 1985, when Prime Minister Thatcher was refusing to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement, President Reagan, at the instigation of Speaker Tip O’Neill, persuaded Thatcher to sign that crucial stepping stone to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
Next, President Clinton and his Special Envoy, Senator Mitchell played an indispensable role in the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
And today, President Biden, a US President who genuinely loves his Irish heritage, has stressed to three British Prime Ministers what he termed in March 2022, his “deep commitment to protecting the hard-won gains of peace in Northern Ireland.” He stated clearly that “the Good Friday Agreement has been the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years, and it cannot change.”
President Biden, who has called for London and Brussels to find a solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol that protects peace in Ireland, also supports the bipartisan determination of Congress to delay a US-UK trade agreement as long as the Good Friday Agreement is threatened.
This extraordinary record of support by successive American presidents reflects America’s interest in preventing instability in Ireland, but it also reflects the love for their Irish heritage by American leaders of Irish descent and the importance of being responsive to Irish American voters.
Thanks to Irish organizations such as the Ireland Funds, the bipartisan Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement, and Irish studies centres like those at Glucksman Ireland House NYU, Boston College, and Georgetown, Irish Americans are more informed about the complexity of Northern Ireland and the need to accommodate both Irish and British identities in any future relationship.
Granting the right to vote in Irish Presidential elections to Irish citizens living outside the State would deepen that constructive engagement by Irish America, particularly amongst the Next Generation that must be cultivated.
Going forward, what role is the US government likely to play in the future of Ireland? It is hardly a secret that President Biden would like to visit Ireland to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next April, but much will depend on the political will and ability of Prime Minister Sunak to negotiate a solution with Brussels on the Protocol that encourages the Northern Ireland Assembly to go back to work.
President Biden demonstrated his “continued, steadfast support” for the Belfast Agreement and his wish to cooperate with both communities in the North by his recent appointment of former Congressman Joe Kennedy III as US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland with a mandate to support its economic growth, including encouraging US business to invest in the North. The President’s Administration, whose National Security Council is one of the most experienced ever on Irish matters – including Director Jake Sullivan, Amanda Sloat, and Tom Wright – will likely urge caution in any rush to a dual referendum on Irish unity unless it convincingly accommodates both the British and Irish identities.
With President Biden expected to run again in 2024, one thing is certain, the Irish search for an agreed Ireland will continue to have a firm friend in the White House. ♦
Editor’s Note: US Support for Ireland Should Not Be taken for Granted first appeared as an OpEd piece in The Irish Times on January 3, 2023, by Ted Smyth, President Advisory Board Glucksman Ireland House for Irish Studies NYU.