In the late 1990s, the US participated in a rare foreign policy achievement that actually held up well in the post-Cold War era: the Good Friday Agreement. The US is not a signatory on the 1998 accord that helped end sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, but many observers and analysts believe the then president Bill Clinton, and by extension the American political establishment, played a significant role in bringing it about.
This sense of investment in the Irish peace process needs to be kept in mind when American politicians speak about the agreement, as US special envoy to Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney did this Monday (28 September). The agreement could be “at risk”, he warned during a visit to Dublin, adding that was something the US was “very interested in seeing not happen”.
Mulvaney’s comments came as the British government rejected a new demand from the EU to withdraw its controversial Internal Market Bill, which would break international law and side-step provisions in the EU Withdrawal Agreement meant to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Yet while the propositions behind the Internal Market Bill have shocked many in Washington, some in the UK seem unwilling to believe this could truly be the case.
When, for example, earlier this month, Joe Biden, the former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee, said, “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period,” some dismissed it as normal politicking. Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party at Westminster, said that the “rhetoric coming from Washington is growing increasingly ridiculous… Do unionist voices not matter in [Washington] DC, or is it just about the Irish-American vote rather than peace in Belfast?”
It would certainly be convenient for a British politician to pretend that a meaningful Irish-American voting bloc exists. “It’s much more reassuring for them to think this is the Democrats playing politics… than it is to say actually the US feels very strongly about the Good Friday Agreement and thinks we’re completely jeopardising it,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institute. “That’s a much more difficult sort of insight for the pro-Brexit group to absorb.”
But while it is true that there are many proud Irish Americans, Biden (an Irish American himself) was not talking about the importance of the Good Friday Agreement in order to get their support. That might have been the case in 1920 or even 1970, but in 2020 when Americans speak of different voting blocs, they rarely speak about the “Irish American vote”.
Irish Americans are among the many groups once thought of as other and now considered white. They are courted not as Irish-American voters per se, but as suburban women, or as a swing state voters, or as religious voters (the Biden campaign has put particular emphasis on wooing voters of faith). Individual members of Congress may speak about the Irish-American vote or serve largely Irish-American communities, and there may be some Irish Americans who disagree with this piece, but Irish Americans have lived in this country for so long and have assimilated to such an extent that the way to pander to the Irish-American voter is to speak about healthcare and the economy.
The tragicomic part of all of this is that a Biden win on 3 November might have meant good business for Brexit. Democrats were broadly against Brexit, but there was a view on both sides of the proverbial pond that the past was past and that the United States and United Kingdom could work together towards a multilateral future – provided the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t hurt.
“What was surprising to me and to many others,” Wright said, is that “in the middle of that, at a crucial moment, they basically ripped all of that up and said, ‘we are going to voluntarily put the most sensitive part of this back on the agenda in a way that you really won’t like and we know is a red line for you’.”
And that means if the Internal Market Bill remains, the Northern Ireland border issue will loom over what could have been a positive US-UK relationship. But what Biden means for Brexit is down to whether those in power in the UK believe he means what he says. Which, on the Good Friday Agreement, he almost certainly does.