Wednesday 19 December 2018

Ireland Funds a constant in increasingly-chaotic Washington

Kieran McLoughlin
Kieran McLoughlin

Jason O’Brien in Washington DC

DONALD TRUMP did little to convince observers that his White House is in anything other than chaotic flux today, telling the country’s top diplomat – by tweet, naturally – that he was being replaced by someone more in tune with Trump’s ‘America First’ outlook.

But some things in Washington DC are on a more even footing.

For a quarter of a century, the annual Ireland Funds National Gala dinner has been a highlight of the city’s social calendar – with organisers of Wednesday's $1,000-a-head event expecting a sell-out.

“We’ll be announcing that we’ve crossed the threshold of raising $600m since we were founded (in 1976),” Ireland Funds chief executive Kieran McLoughlin told

“But what’s interesting and very encouraging is the fact that half of that – more than $300m - has been raised in the past nine years alone.”

Donors here, he believes, dug deep not only despite the economic crisis – but also, increasingly, because of the Irish response to that same crisis.

“I think people here and globally are immensely impressed by Ireland’s comeback,” he says, expressing a viewpoint perhaps too easily shrugged off at home.

“Nobody underestimates the pain and the hardship that people underwent to get there, and they want to do what they can to help society recover as the economy gets back on its feet.”

The black tie dinner will raise in the region of $800,000, with the organisation involved in funding arts, educational, and community development – and peace and reconciliation projects - on both sides of the border and for the diaspora.

Among those expected are the Taoiseach, the Irish and British ambassadors, 25 members of Congress including house minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and an array of business and political leaders.

Republican congressman Peter King - for years a prominent US voice on Northern Ireland – will be honoured alongside Democrat Richie Neal, his co-chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill.

But while the Ireland Funds is strictly “down the middle” when it comes to America’s big political parties, there are obvious challenges to remaining relevant at a time when Irish issues are no longer a priority here.

Irish America is shrinking and getting old. The number who identify as being Irish American has dropped sharply to 34m, according to the last census. “On the basis of that trajectory, it could drop below 30m before 2020,” Mr McLoughlin says. “We have to work hard to maintain our relevance to the next generation of Irish Americans, and to the political system here.”

The Ireland Funds figures since 2009 show they’re doing something right.

“It’s about establishing deep and honest relationships with Ireland, with all its potential but also with all its problems,” he says.

“Sentiment is out and substance is in.”

It is likely Leo Varadkar will need to take a similar approach on Thursday. If Trump has any major sentiment either way towards Ireland he’s kept it under wraps. His second-in-command, Mike Pence - with his grandfather from Sligo - talked the misty-eyed talk at last year’s Ireland Funds dinner, but hasn’t walked the walk in terms of showing much interest in Irish affairs.  America First, and all that.

But Mr McLoughlin is adamant this week remains the key diplomatic engagement of the year for Ireland.

“Absolutely,” he says. “In Obama’s last year for example there were scores of countries that were still waiting to get their Prime Minister or President into the office, but our Taoiseach has a standing appointment on an annual basis for the meeting in the Oval Office, followed by time with the President on Capitol Hill, followed by the reception.

“I don’t think any other country in the world enjoys that access.”

How the Taoiseach plays it will be fascinating. Like many in the White House, he won’t be on steady ground.

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