Back to the old sod
Carefully scripted and tightly choreographed, Biden’s Irish visit was really about November 2024. Kevin Bean looks at the electoral politics of ‘Oirishness’
President Joe Biden must feel pleased with his visit. It all went rather well, with large, cheering crowds south of the border, a warm welcome from the Irish political establishment and plenty of positive headlines and footage that can be recycled for next year’s US presidential campaign.
The brief northern stopover - a quick chat with Rishi Sunak, a carefully scripted speech and tightly choreographed appearance at the new University of Ulster campus - made less of a splash, but it too served its purpose nonetheless. The different emphases and responses to the two legs of the presidential visit to what we have learned to call ‘the island of Ireland’ are significant, and tell us a great deal about why Biden made the trip at all.
The northern visit had been considerably pared back and lasted less than 24 hours. Although it might now appear somewhat perfunctory, Biden’s presence was sufficiently important to shape the negotiating timetable for the Windsor agreement on post-Brexit trading arrangements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Dublin, London and Washington all hoped that this revamped deal between Britain and the European Union would tempt the Democratic Unionist Party back into Stormont. That is why the presidential tour was originally going to include a speech to the assembly, designed to both positively mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement and give the American seal of approval to the restoration of devolved government in the Six Counties.
The DUP’s opposition to the Windsor agreement and continuing boycott of Stormont meant that this did not happen. Along with their attacks on Biden’s perceived pro-nationalist and anti-British position, it allowed the DUP and unionists more generally to be represented as churlish wreckers who only wanted to spoil the anniversary shindig for everyone else. Criticisms of Joe Biden’s politics and motives by Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley junior, Arlene Foster and Lord Dodds, for example, were naturally given full publicity in Northern Ireland’s unionist media, such as The News Letter, but were also echoed and given a further twist by sections of the Conservative press in Britain.1
This media narrative seemed to gather momentum when the Biden circus moved south and the second, main purpose of the presidential visit became much clearer. However, for all the rather predictable criticisms of Biden’s hyper-stage ‘Oirishness’ by The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Sun, Daily Mail and The Spectator, the visit south of the border followed a familiar path that had been well-trodden by previous American presidents since John F Kennedy’s visit laid down the format in 1963.2
The basic package was a visit to some ancestral home - preferably a quaint, romantic cottage - combined with looking up distant cousins and talking to admiring locals who were suitably amazed that the most powerful man on earth had come amongst them. To these ‘personal’ explorations of roots were added official functions and state occasions, such as speeches to the Dáil celebrating the close relationship between the US and Ireland and acknowledging the contribution Irish people had made to America over the centuries. If JFK set the pattern in the 1960s, then Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Obama and now Biden, with obvious variations on the theme, all read from the same script during their official trips to Ireland in the years that followed.
1776 and all that
The main audience for these presidential visits was at home and the main motives can likewise be found in American politics. With some 31.5 million Americans claiming Irish ancestry, Irish Americans, however they define themselves, are a significant part of the US population and electorate.3 Although ethnic-bloc political mobilisation and voting patterns in general in the US have declined in comparison with the early 20th century, they still have sufficient significance to influence aspects of political campaigning.4 Bill Clinton’s courting of Irish Americans whilst seeking the Democratic nomination in the 1990s is just one of the examples of how politicians might use this ethnic identification to gain support: granting a visa to Gerry Adams and getting up the nose of British politicians and media in 1994 would do no harm at all to his electoral support.5
For all the diplomatic talk of a special relationship with Britain, putting it up to the Brits can play well for US politicians far beyond Irish America. Shades of 1776 and all that! So, the one-sided media spat between Tory newspapers in Britain and Joe Biden will only act to boost his popularity amongst wide sections of his potential electorate in November 2024. Footage of the welcoming crowds in Carlingford and Ballina, interspersed with clips of his statesmanlike invocation of the close relationship between Ireland and America during his address to both houses of the Oireachtas, will get pride of place during Biden’s presidential campaign.
Since JFK’s Irish pilgrimage in the early 60s, presidents and aspiring candidates, whatever their ethnic background, have tried to link their politics and their personal stories to the wider immigrant narrative and the struggle to gain acceptance and a place in American society. By identifying with America’s history in this way, whether you are Irish, Italian or Hispanic, it is possible for politicians to play the ordinary Joe and so identify with the masses rather than the privileged ‘Wasp’ elite.6 So established and cynical is this electoral strategy that many foreign visits by presidents are widely regarded as simply PR exercises and openly criticised as electoral stunts. Joe Biden’s Irish trip was no exception and came in for attacks as a “taxpayer family reunion” in sections of the US media.7
While Biden’s electoral strategy was foremost in his mind, his trip ‘home’ had other important ramifications. Both in his Belfast and Dublin speeches, he reiterated the key role that the US had played in the peace process and how its political and economic power and influence were deployed to safeguard the status quo in Northern Ireland. Promises of investment and “strong encouragements” aimed at the DUP to get Stormont up and running again, along with advice, directed at the British government, about strengthening Dublin’s role in the north, served to show the indispensable role of the world hegemon, even in this seemingly insignificant corner of Europe.8
Notably, Biden also drew Ireland into contemporary geopolitics and American attempts to sustain its position of global hegemony. He praised Ireland for aiding the war effort in Ukraine and striking a defiant tone against “Russia’s brutal aggression”. Similarly, he commended Ireland as a model for efforts to fight climate change and global hunger and urged it to go even further in pushing for ‘economic and social progress’. His speech to the joint meeting of the Oireachtas concluded with a call for a “partnership for the ages” between Ireland and the US, focused on “forging peace in the face of rising global challenges”.9 Although the established policy of the 26-county state has long been one of ‘neutrality’ - it is not a member of Nato - as a member of the EU and part of the Partnership for Peace programme, this ‘neutral’ status has become increasingly a formality - and openly questioned, especially during the war in Ukraine.10
Biden’s praise for “Ireland’s support for Ukraine” and his call for a closer partnership has to be seen in this context, adding as it does to the arguments in favour of ending formal military neutrality. Drawing Dublin more closely into this strategic network is hardly a prime focus of US policy at the moment, but it is possible to see how politically useful such a strengthened relationship would be for both America and the Irish bourgeoisie.
So, despite the well-publicised spats in the British and Irish media and the ballyhoo and sentimental schmaltz surrounding the presidential ‘homecoming’, whether over the future of the Good Friday agreement or the war in Ukraine, the main lesson from Biden’s visit is that the real interests of Washington, London and Dublin are fundamentally aligned.
. www.dfa.ie/partnership-for-peace/ireland-in-the-partnership-for-peace-programme; and: tribunemag.co.uk/2022/03/the-war-on-irelands-neutrality.↩︎