An Gorta Mór memorial in Philadelphia
Just when you thought you knew all the players in the Brexit balls-up – Britain, the EU, Ireland north and south – a new players steps in . Over the last couple of weeks, the voice of America has sounded.
The first and most dramatic intervention came from Brendan Boyle. You may have heard of him before – I hadn’t. He’s from Philadelphia and was elected as a Democrat to Congress in 2014. His parents came from Ireland in the 1970s – his father worked as a janitor and his mother as a school-crossing guard. Boyle publicly expressed concern that Brexit could threaten the Good Friday Agreement. And he provided a gentle warning to Britain: “It’s just a fact that if the UK reneges on its Good Friday commitment, it will have an impact on any future negotiations between the US and UK. It would be naïve to think otherwise.”
Then Richard Neale, who is another Congressman and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, a very powerful group, reinforced Boyle’s words. Any bilateral trade deal could be at risk, he said, depending on what agreement is reached about the Irish border. “We want a bilateral trade agreement with the UK, but at the same time I think that I would raise the same concerns that are being raised now, and that would be obviously no return to a hard border.”
Britain likes very much to emphasise its ‘special relationship’ with the US, but Irish-Americans lobbied for the granting of a visa to Gerry Adams back in the 1990s, in the teeth of British opposition, and they were successful. Adams travelled to the US and the rest is history.
This kind of thing doesn’t go down well with parts of the British media. The Daily Express had a headline ‘Ireland runs to USA for Brexit backup’. You noticed the verb used? ‘Runs’. It’s almost like a playground jeer – you’re running to tell the teacher what we’re doing!
It has ever been thus. If there’s one thing some unionists can’t stomach, it’s Americans sticking their noses into what the British see as their business. In this case Ireland. While Britain is enormously more powerful than Ireland in economic, political and any other terms you want to mention, the US in turn is enormously more powerful than Britain. So naturally it doesn’t like to see the Yanks passing comment on Brexit, much less making lightly-veiled threats about the chances of a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal.
It’s ironic, really. In the 1970s, the voice of Irish-Americans was a powerful one, and the Four Horsemen – Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, Patrick Moynihan and Hugh Carey – were powerful allies of John Hume and the SDLP. Their comments really riled the Tory Lord Hailsham: “Those Roman Catholic bastards, how dare they interfere
Likewise in the 1980s and 1990s, Congressman Peter King was a champion of things Irish and was close to Sinn Féin. But in those days, there was a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the US. Since the Good Friday Agreement, there’s been less Irish immigrant and less US focus on Ireland. There was a sense that with the Good Friday Agreement the job was done, the Irish question settled.
But clearly we are entering a period when Brexit has brought the border into sharper focus than has been the case for decades. That 56% of people from the north of Ireland who voted to remain in the EU is, of course, a minority in the UK. But in the north it’s a solid majority. Even if the Gaderene rush to the cliff-edge were to be halted and the British House of Commons were to have a change of heart and accept Theresa May’s withdrawal deal complete with backstop, Brexit will still mean real economic disruption for many in Ireland north and south.
Irish-Americans have turned their attention here because, like the rest of us, they fear the return of a hard border. But don’t assume they’re going to relax and go off bowling if a hard border doesn’t come about. There is an innate suspicion of Britain in Irish-American thinking, suspicion grounded on hard experience, going all the way back to the nineteenth century and An Gorta Mór.
In times like these, when the stakes are so high, it’s good to know that Irish-America is watching.