Sunday 11 December 2016

Ruth Dudley Edwards: The old-school Irish-American certainties are in the grave

The Government has to face a sea-change in the American administration, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30

‘Bill begged Hillary in 2015 to address a St Patrick’s Day event at a university but her team made it clear white Catholics were not the audience she needed to reach out to’ Photo: AP
‘Bill begged Hillary in 2015 to address a St Patrick’s Day event at a university but her team made it clear white Catholics were not the audience she needed to reach out to’ Photo: AP

For years, Irish-America was seen as Catholic, nationalist and Democrat - a lazy perception that ignored those who were from different religions and traditions and who had different political priorities.

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We basked in the Kennedy glow for years after the family ceased to be significant, worshipped the Clintons for liking us, and adopted the Obamas because they were cool. Now, those self-appointed Irish lobbyists that shouted so loudly in the corridors of power in Washington have been silenced by the victory of Donald Trump.

In a post-election analysis, The Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly described watching the results of the US presidential election at a party organised by the American ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O'Malley. Kelly said: "To say that the atmosphere began like a coronation party for Hillary Clinton would be an understatement. All that changed, of course, as the results started to emerge and the electoral college pattern was clear. The rest, as the pundits say, is history."

Bill Clinton tried to persuade his wife to go after the votes of the white working class - a constituency he understood - but she fatally preferred to accept the urgings of her advisers that she focus on minorities and the college-educated. Another demographic in which she was uninterested was Catholic.

When Bill begged her in 2015 to emulate Obama by accepting an invitation to address a St Patrick's Day event at Indiana's Notre Dame University, her team made it clear that "white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to".

Her progressivism and support for abortion gave a strong impression of hostility to Catholicism. She was the first US Secretary of State in 40 years not to visit the Vatican. This impression was later borne out by leaked emails from her team describing Catholic teaching as "backward".

Trump spotted this and established and listened to an effective "Catholic advisory group" that included Francis Rooney, an Irish-American who had been George W Bush's envoy to the Holy See. Like Obama in 2012, Trump won 52pc of the Catholic vote. In Wisconsin - which Clinton never visited on the campaign trail - as in the other mid-western swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Catholic votes helped deliver them to Trump.

As traditional Irish-American voices cheered for Clinton, for a change it was Ulster Protestants who were getting close to the corridors of power. Ian Paisley Jnr wrote post-election about his relationship with Trump, a Presbyterian whose mother was an immigrant from the Hebrides.

Apparently a decade ago, seeing that Trump was having trouble with his construction plans in Scotland, the two Ians visited him in New York to discuss the possibility of him building instead in North Antrim. Since then, said Ian Jr, he has had many business and social meetings with Trump and members of his family.

"A little corner of the UK has its foot in the door," Ian Jr wrote. "Let's push on and build on that relationship".

David Trimble, the ex-first minister and Nobel prizewinner, now sits in the House of Lords on the Conservative benches, but still has the family home in Northern Ireland.

In Indiana two years ago, he had a meeting with governor Mike Pence, now vice president-elect. Pence, who knows the west of Ireland quite well from visiting ancestral places, was brought up in a family of Irish, Catholic, Kennedy-supporting Democrats.

Pence now describes himself as "a born-again, evangelical Catholic" and has decidedly conservative religious views. Both Pence and Trimble are supporters of Israel and they got on so well that Pence invited him to stay at the governor's mansion when he was next in Indiana.

Trump is also friendly towards Israel, as are most Ulster Unionists. But Sinn Fein has been vociferously pro-Palestinian, and the Republic is perceived by the Israeli foreign ministry as the most hostile country in the EU.

All this is tough on our Department of Foreign Affairs, a sophisticated and effective operation already struggling with the implications of Brexit. It now has to take on board an unfamiliar American administration which, among other campaign pledges, has promised to slash corporation tax to bring companies back home. (Some people got carried away because Trump talked to several world leaders, including Enda Kenny, before speaking to Theresa May. In fact, during a chaotic period, he simply returned the calls made to him in the order in which they arrived.)

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - who owe so much to the American Anglophobes who financed both violent and constitutional republicanism for so long - have been quick to realise the new reality and joined the grown-up politicians North and South in civilly congratulating Trump. (Leader of the SDLP Colum Eastwood has ludicrously insisted that, if invited to the White House St Patrick's Day party, he will boycott it as a protest against Trump's rhetoric.)

The people of Doonbeg, in Co Clare, are partying hard, for not only is it the home of Trump International Golf Links, but it's where Pence's great-grandmother comes from. A grandfather to whom he was close came from Tubbercurry, in Co Sligo, so expect hot competition in the heritage stakes.

The American-based Irish journalist Niall O'Dowd, a prominent member of the Adams fan club and beater of the peace-process drum, is looking for a new contender to keep old Irish-American hopes flickering on the life-support machine. Maybe it's time for "a Kennedy moment", he suggested. "Given his pedigree and performance to date", the man just might be congressman Joe Kennedy III, the 36-year-old grandson of Bobby.

Why? What is it about republicans and dynasties?

www.ruthdudleyedwards.com Twitter @Ruthde

Sunday Independent

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