America and Ireland: Re-imagining Priorities

America and Ireland: Re-imagining Priorities

In association with the Washington Ireland Program

16th November 2016

Crowell & Moring, 1001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20004

Report by Ted Smyth (Chair, UCD Clinton Institute Advisory Board)

The UCD Clinton Institute and the Washington Ireland Program hosted a timely forum in Washington, DC on November 16 on the changing dynamics of Irish American culture post Good Friday Agreement, and priorities for the Trump Administration regarding US-Ireland relations.  In an introduction to the conference, Professor Liam Kennedy of UCD and Bryan Patten of the Washington Ireland Program said that the intent was to spotlight key issues, including “areas of economic challenge and opportunity, the impact of Brexit, Irish networks in the US, the legacy of the 1916/100 commemorations, the changing dynamics of Irish American culture, and how diaspora linkages between Ireland and the US are evolving.”

The Challenges and Promise of Irish America’s Future

The first of two panels focused on “The Challenges and Promise of Irish America’s Future.” In her opening remarks, the Chair of the panel, H.E. Anne Anderson, Ireland’s Ambassador to the US, said she was optimistic about the promise of Irish America, “For over three years, I’ve been to all corners of America and I am so proud when I meet the Irish American community; I am struck by their love, loyalty and sense of engagement with Ireland, their desire to give back to their homeland.”  The Ambassador listed the many Irish American organizations such as the AOH, Irish Network USA, GAA, United Irish Counties and numerous educational institutions which had hosted over 300 1916 Centenary events, including the Ireland One Hundred three week festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  She said that the connection between contemporary Ireland and Irish America is improving, especially with the leadership of the Minister for Diaspora.  The Ambassador said future challenges include the fact that the Irish American community is shrinking because the legal channels for immigration have narrowed, and we need immigration reform to deliver improved access and to address the large numbers of undocumented who are living in the shadows.

Picking up on this theme, Niall O’Dowd, Founder Irish America, Irish Voice and Irish, agreed that the second and third generation Irish American community is assimilating rapidly, but that the internet now enhances communications like never before.  Over 3 million Irish Americans are now viewing Irish Central online every month, with stories on heritage and roots most popular.  “Ireland as a brand is unbeatable, we have a huge emotional and mental advantage with over 30 million Americans of Irish descent,” he continued, “and if you can get people to visit Ireland, they’ll fall in love.”  As examples, Mr. O’Dowd referenced Vice President-elect Pence and Speaker Paul Ryan who are very proud of their Irish roots.

Maureen Murphy, Professor of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University, agreed that a need to connect to something bigger and more meaningful is paramount and referred to the thousands of Irish Americans who said in an Irish Central poll that they had voted for Donald Trump due to a feeling of lost identity in a rapidly changing world.  Professor Murphy said that Irish Americans played a key role in the 1916 Rising and the Northern Ireland Peace Process and will hopefully bring the “same energy and imagination to the Brexit challenge.”  She noted that the profile of Irish Americans is far more diverse since 1965, with engagement in trade, investment, tourism, sports, arts and academics, and with a potential distinction emerging between “sojourners” and “settlers”.  Using the example of the creation of the Great Irish Famine curriculum by the Irish American Teachers Association, she said, “We want the celebration of Ireland to be more than a St. Patrick’s Day event.”  Professor Murphy also mentioned the importance of the Study Abroad programs and hoped they could be better coordinated for optimum benefit.

Celine Kennedy, Executive Director of the San Francisco Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, felt that the 1965 Immigration Act marked the closing of the door to Irish immigrants, notwithstanding outstanding efforts to address it, including the Morrison and Donnelly visa programs.  “The new generation of undocumented Irish immigrants continue in the Irish American tradition of being entrepreneurial, hard-working and successful, but they also suffer from a feeling of isolation and loss in times of crisis”.    Ms. Kennelly agreed that the future of Irish America is bright, “It’s about people, relationships and communications.”

Steve Lenox, President of Irish Network USA, said he had started the Network 15 years ago in Chicago and it now has 22 chapters designed to bolster relationships through business, arts, culture, education and sports.  “We want to help all Irish associations grow and help them to connect to each other where there is often limited interactions, even in the same city.”

Professor Liam Kennedy said that the US election and Brexit were in some part a referendum on globalization, “In the last 25 years, globalization has been key to Ireland’s success, but it has also been a major contributor to our economic collapse in 2008.”  He observed that “Ireland is a leader in the strategic engagement of diaspora populations”, but we need more data on the needs and affinities of these communities.  Professor Kennedy rejected the argument that the Irish American community is in decline, giving examples of new associations that replace those that are not growing as interests change.  He discussed the research project underway, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to examine Irish linkages in the US.

The conclusions of this panel could be summarized as follows:

  1. Irish Americans are less active in American elections with the success of the Irish Peace process.
  2. Immigration reform remains a key issue for Irish Americans.
  3. The power of the Internet needs to be tapped to mobilize and connect Irish America.
  4. We need the Irish Government to coordinate Irish agencies in the US to take a holistic approach to Irish America, to determine what are their interests, needs and how we can better engage to our mutual advantage across a range of cultural, business, sports, tourist and charitable areas.

Videos available of all presentations

Panel 1

Ireland and America: Priorities for a Trump Administration

The second panel, “Ireland and America: Priorities for a Trump Administration” was chaired by Jim Walsh, former Republican Member of Congress from New York.  Mr. Walsh said that he and his family and always had a deep pride in being Irish, including his father “Big Jim” Walsh who had been a Congressman and Mayor of Syracuse. The Irish in Syracuse even had a traffic light on Tipperary Hill where the green light was above the red!  He said that support for the Irish Peace process was always bipartisan and that was how the Friends of Ireland operate

Caitriona Perry, Washington Correspondent for RTE, said she was struck during the US election campaign by “the number of small towns that had lost their young people and sense of community”.  She added that huge crowds say Trump as a strong man on jobs and the economy.  “Who voted for Donald Trump?  All sorts of people”.

Donal Donovan, retired Deputy Director of the IMF, said that a lower corporate tax in America would affect Ireland’s competitiveness, even though the tax rate is only part of our offering.  “The world will be more challenging for Ireland if there’s a halt to globalization, a more competitive USA and disruption by Brexit.”

Jack Horgan Jones, Business Correspondent with the Sunday Business Post, said that after Brexit, Ireland will have the advantage of being the only English-speaking country in the EU.  He added that the relationship between Ireland and America is at core an economic one, impacting jobs, trade and growth.

Tom Wright, Fellow at the Brookings Institute discussed some of Donald Trump’s earlier stated positions, including newspaper ads 30 years ago critical of US alliances with South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia, and a consistent opposition to multilateral trade deals and a preference for bilateral agreements.  Mr. Wright wondered whether a Trump Administration would be supportive of the EU or not.

Mr. Bob Carey, a member of the Republican National Committee, but speaking in a personal capacity, said that “the cohesiveness of the Irish American political identity is not as strong as it was before the Good Friday Agreement.” He added that imagination would be needed to adapt to changing conditions and interests, including, for example, the continued growth in support for both the GAA and rugby amongst the Irish in America.  This latter was well illustrated by the thousands who had come to Chicago to watch the Irish rugby team beat the All Blacks.

In my concluding remarks at the conference, I speculated that if the Trump Administration and Congress made progress in 2017 on the three issues of infrastructure investment, immigration reform and tax reform, it could increase annual GDP growth to 4-5%, providing millions of new jobs in America and a much-needed engine of growth for the rest of the world, including Ireland.  In addition, the US now represents less than 20% of global trade and a prosperous future depends on increasing free and fair trade, not decreasing it.  In this connection, Ireland and America are united.

Videos available of all presentations

Panel 2

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