In the shadow of Uncle Sam

THE Shakespearean drama that is the Presidential election in the United States reaches a climax on November 3 and will be watched closely by political parties on both sides of the Irish border. Though the British government claims a ‘special relationship’ with the US, Ireland has much deeper ties and exerts greater influence on Capitol Hill. The first big wave of settlers to arrive in north America came from the north of Ireland. More than 200,000 people left Ulster for the New World in the 18th century and many of the leading figures in the American Revolution were Scots-Irish. The Declaration of Independence was first printed by John Dunlap who was born in county Tyrone. Senator James Webb in, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, speaks with pride of a heritage claimed by around 27 million US citizens. “They fought the Indians and they fought the British comprising 40% of the revolutionary army. They were the great pioneers Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark. They gave us great artists including Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell, Edgar Allen Poe, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Robert Redford. The Scots-Irish did not merely come to America, they became America.” 

Exiled United Irishmen played a key role in shaping US politics in the Jefferson era when federalism was forged and the Irish were in the forefront of the push west believing it was their ‘manifest destiny’ to occupy the continent. The single largest wave of immigration came in the 19th century when more than one million Irish, fleeing the Famine, added another shade of green to American society and the country remained an important safety valve for thousands of Irish emigrants well into the 20th century. The Irish fought on both sides during the American civil war and legend has it that Confederate troops sang the chorus when Union soldiers sang Ireland Boys Hurrah at the battle of Fredericksburg. At least a dozen Presidents have had Irish forebears starting with Andrew Jackson and including Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Joe Biden has strong Irish ties. His mother Jean’s descendants have connections in Louth and his father, Joe snr, can claim roots in county Mayo. Donald Trump’s mother was a gaelic speaking MacLeod from the Scottish islands and his father was German. He has no blood ties with Ireland.

The human traffic across the Atlantic has given the US a special interest in Irish affairs. This was exploited by the exiled Fenian leaders O’Donovan Ross and John Devoy and by Eamon De Valera, who was born in New York. During the Anglo-Irish war for independence and the Ireland’s struggle to win the recognition of other nations, De Valera successfully courted American public opinion even securing investment for his own newspaper, The Irish Press. The Provisional IRA was successful in exploiting American sympathy during the Troubles and received substantial sums of money and arms from across the Atlantic, much to the chagrin of the British government and peaceful politicians in Ireland, north and south. The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 owe much to the influence of US politicians including Clinton’s special envoy George Mitchell. Since 2000, millions of US dollars have been invested north and south of the border in digital, pharmaceutical, creative and software industries. The US has a consulate in Belfast and an embassy in Dublin.

The bitter contest for the Whitehouse is a battle for the very soul of modern America but there is much at stake for Ireland too. Though all the polls give Biden a clear lead over Trump the election remains a volatile one and is dependent upon a better turnout than in 2016 when many failed to vote because of dissatisfaction with both candidates. A disputed result would be a disaster for the American people. There are those who believe it could plunge the nation into another period of violence or even a race war. The best result for Ireland, north and south, is a clear victory for the Democratic candidate and a swift return to the Obama era policy of engagement with the rest of the world including good relations with the European Union. The Democrats in Congress have pledged to withhold a trade deal from the UK unless it honours the Brexit withdrawal agreement which is designed to ensure there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. There is also considerable support for this position in the Senate where republicans have a slim majority. It reveals a good understanding of Irish affairs in Washington, probably better than in London where the Conservative chair of parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare, says: “I continue to be amazed by the lack of knowledge or interest in the North and the Republic.”

The worst result would be a narrow victory for the Republican candidate and a return to the empty rhetoric of ‘America First’ which would mean another four years of US bickering with the world over climate change, trade and migration. It could see the President endorsing a Brexit which seriously undermines the Good Friday Agreement raising the dreadful prospect of a breakdown in a hard won peace. It could also herald new measures which could stem the flow of US investment into industry here and shut the door to Irish immigration. With both parts of Ireland struggling to contain Covid-19 and keep their economies afloat, this would be a disaster.

I confess that I am among the millions who dislike and distrust Trump. He represents the worst of American society, ignorance, greed and selfishness. His attitudes to minorities and women are appalling and his failure to condemn fascism is totally irresponsible. Biden too has little appeal for me but he is preferable to the reckless narcissist who currently sits in the Oval Office spreading hate and fear. I have a gut feeling that the good people of the US will turn out in sufficient numbers to unseat Trump. Ireland, and the rest of the world, will breathe a sigh of relief.


In this year of the plague, we could do with a bit of hope.


© Maurice Neill 2020

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