Op-Ed: The US Election and Irish Interests

With Election Day looming, Professor Frank Barry analyses the potential outcome for Irish people

Irish people tend to assume that Democratic administrations in the US look more favourably on Irish interests than Republican ones. If this has been the case in the past, it is because Irish America – and those identified as speaking on its behalf – tended to be Democratic. What Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum – “states don’t have friends, they have interests” – overlooks is that politicians determine which interests are prioritised.

Like so much else in US politics, Irish America’s attachment to the Democratic Party began to change in the Reagan era of the 1980s, when the US “culture wars” that now dominate American politics began in earnest. Irish Americans are on the conservative wing of the US electorate. And as they have worked their way up the social hierarchy, their support has been shifting towards the Republicans.

And yet, most who identify most strongly as Irish American live in the Democratic heartlands and their voice remains, for the moment, more influential within that party. This is why a Democrat-controlled Congress might be expected to adhere to what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asserted: that any Brexit-related threat to the Northern Ireland peace agreement will scupper the UK’s chances of a speedy free trade deal with the US.

The Trump administration has been so iconoclastic of course that it has been difficult to discern what it has perceived the interests of the US to be. Since the end of the second world war, America has been a driving force behind European integration. It wanted a strong, stable and secure ally to help to contain the threat from Russia. A Biden presidency would herald a return to this traditional position. So much of Ireland’s economic progress over the past half-century has been bound up with European integration that a return to the status quo would undoubtedly be in Ireland’s interests. Thinking more globally, the looming catastrophe of climate change can only be addressed by inter-governmental agreement. If any one key player leaves the stage, as the Trump administration has done, the likelihood of any even modestly effective solution being found diminishes spectacularly.

To return to Kissinger’s dictum, successive Irish governments have proved themselves adept at defending Irish interests by showing how they align with US interests. The Irish economy remains highly reliant on US inward investment, for which Ireland’s corporation tax regime remains a significant factor. On this issue, the election platforms on which Democratic presidential candidates have campaigned have usually appeared more threatening than those of Republic candidates. Barack Obama ran on the same platform as John F. Kennedy decades earlier: that US corporations should pay to the US Treasury any taxes they saved by operating in low-tax jurisdictions abroad.

The Irish Times warned at the time of the dangers an Obama presidency might represent for Ireland because of this. This brings us to a second classic American political dictum – this time from a Democrat, Governor Mario Cuomo, the great Italian-American “might have been”. Politicians, he said, campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Once in office, the pressures they face differ from those they faced on the campaign trail and their proposals are subjected to much more careful analysis, where potentially debilitating unintended consequences might be unearthed.

For all that President Trump continues to rail against American pharma companies producing in Ireland for importation into the United States, he eschewed the opportunity to disincentivise this in his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the major legislative change of his entire period in office. In documents leaked to the press last year, Democratic candidate Biden suggested that he might consider making some changes to the Trump tax code that could prove hugely damaging to Ireland. Any such potentially damaging changes have been averted in the past by a cross-party coalition of US multinational companies with influence within the Republican Party and Irish-American politicians with influence among Democrats.  Irish politicians and our public service bureaucracy have shown themselves to be very effective in the backroom work involved in supporting (and sometimes assembling) such winning coalitions.

The issue of Irish illegal immigrants in the US remains unresolved. Here the Irish government strategy is similar. Any deal reached must be in both parties’ interests. The solution will involve the offer of Irish work visas and residency rights for US citizens.  But it can only be resolved when the political climate in the US is appropriate. We will soon have more insight into the political climate of the coming years.

Frank Barry

Frank Barry is a Professor of International Business and Economic Development at Trinity’s School of Business.