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Biden, Ireland and Brexit – Importance of the Irish Connection


By Luke Foster, BSc Politics and International Relations at University of Bristol


The election of Joe Biden in early November has revealed an interesting and often unnoticed paradigm: the importance and impact of US presidents with Irish heritage. With 35 million Americans considering themselves Irish and a large proportion of these voters concentrated in swing states, the ‘Irish’ vote has the potential to wield great power in American politics (Fegan, 2020). According to Brian O’Dwyer, the coordinator of the ‘Irish Americans for Biden’ committee, there is a significant concentration of Irish voters in the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – the key states to winning the US Presidency (Fegan, 2020). ‘Ever since JFK was mobbed by crowds in County Wexford, in 1963, nearly every president has beaten the same path across the Atlantic…in an effort to seek out the ancestral home’ (Geoghegan, 2011). Historian Robert Green argues that the importance of the Irish connection lies in the Irish-Catholic vote in America. Obama took advantage of his Irish heritage in 2008 and 2012 by visiting Irish-populated Rustbelt cities to gain positive exposure he would not otherwise have got; this was especially important with Obama’s progressive stance on abortion that would have been considerably unpopular in these communities (Geoghegan, 2011).


The President-elect has wisely made no secret of his Irish heritage in recent times; when asked for an interview from BBC News correspondent Nick Bryant, Biden’s tongue-in-cheek response was simply, “the BBC? I’m Irish” (Burns, 2020). With family tracing back to his great-great grandfather, Patrick Blewitt of Co. Mayo, Biden has kept in touch with his roots, making regular visits to Ireland since 2016 as Vice-President (Burns, 2020). The President-elect has already started to establish diplomatic relations with the Irish government. After the election result earlier this month, he spoke with Prime Minster, Micheál Martin, having a ‘warm conversation’ recalling his Irish roots and support of the Good Friday Agreement (Rae, 2020). From an Irish perspective, ‘Biden’s victory is something of a diplomatic coup for Dublin’ (Rae, 2020), with hopes that Ireland could act as a ‘back-channel link between the EU, the UK and the US’ (Rae, 2020). After four years of a pro-Brexit presidency, the Irish government now has the opportunity to draw US diplomats’ attention back to Dublin, away from the focus of Downing Street and the UK government (Rae, 2020). This newly granted access to the White House will likely help Ireland to ‘reconfigure its relationship with the UK’ and ‘re-position’ itself on the European stage (Rae, 2020).


Biden has made sure his pro-Irish sentiment is more than skin-deep, with the President-elect setting his foreign policy before the inauguration. He has opposed Brexit and has recently warned the British government that if it were to undermine the Good Friday agreement, it will miss out on a ‘trade deal with the US’ (Carroll, 2020). If the UK misses out on a comprehensive trade deal with the US, it can abandon any hopes of its vision of a ‘Global Britain’ and a successful exit from the EU. It is likely that Biden will ‘prioritise rebuilding US relations with the EU and its member states over the UK government that in the US is viewed as a Trumpian entity’ (Ryan, 2020).


O’Carroll argues that this is not only personal sentiment from Biden, but is also a political choice; the President-Elect considers the Good Friday Agreement a ‘success of US foreign policy and globalism’ (O’Carroll, 2020). Candidate for Secretary of State Chris Coons has warned that ‘he would expect to be concerned about making sure that the Good Friday accords are respected’ and that the way in which the UK-EU terms do not risk borders terms in Northern Ireland (O’Carroll, 2020).


For the most part, presidential Irish ancestry has only played a part to win support for presidential candidates in Irish-dominated swing states. However, with the election of Joe Biden, the fate of Brexit negotiations and Ireland’s place on the world stage could be completely reshaped. These forthright announcements have set a bold precedent for America’s relationship with Ireland, the UK and the EU for Biden’s presidency, before he even sets foot in the door of the White House (for the second time).


Bibliography:


Burns, S. (2020) ‘What are Joe Biden’s Irish roots?’, The Irish Times, 7 November, available online at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/what-are-joe-biden-s-irish-roots-1.4403488, accessed 24 November 2020.


Carroll, R. (2020) ‘‘Biden gets Ireland’: why Joe in the Oval Office would thrill Joe in Mayo’, The Observer, 18 October, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/18/biden-gets-ireland-why-joe-in-the-oval-office-would-thrill-joe-in-mayo, accessed 24 November 2020.


Fegan, J. (2020) ‘US Elections: Joe Biden’s Irish trump card’, Irish Examiner, 31 October, available online at https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-40073738.html, accessed 24 November 2020.


Geoghegan, T. (2011) ‘Why are US presidents so keen to be Irish?’, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13166265, accessed at 24 November 2020.


O’Carroll, L. (2020) ‘What does Biden’s win mean for Brexit’, The Guardian, 8 November, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/08/what-does-bidens-win-mean-for-britains-special-relationship, accessed 24 November 2020.


Rae, S. (2020) ‘Why Biden’s victory may be a diplomatic coup for Ireland’, available at https://www.politico.eu/article/joe-biden-victory-diplomatic-coup-ireland/, accessed on 25 November 2020.


Ryan, J. (2020) ‘UK-US trade deal could be blocked by Biden presidency and Congress’, available at https://ukandeu.ac.uk/uk-us-trade-deal-could-be-blocked-by-biden-presidency-and-congress/, accessed 10 December 2020.



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