The Irish, the US a Personal Journey with implications for the GFA and the Backstop.

You get nowhere in America if you do not understand that Ireland is in the warp and weft of the Republic. It is the other story from that of the Pilgrim Fathers.

Bonnie Greer -Full Article here.


The relationship between Ireland an the US has been described as a 250 year love affair, with Irish Americans playing a very prominent role in the US, throughout the entire period from the run up to American Independence right up to the current day. In the early days, most prominently Presbyterians  from Northern Ireland (Scots-Irish), but since the Famine (1845) all religions, largely Catholic, from all over the island.  Between 1845 and 1855 more than 1.5 million adults and children left Ireland to seek refuge in America. There are around 35m Irish Americans, over five times the population of Ireland. Twenty two of the forty five American Presidents claim at least partial Irish Ancestry. Is the love affair and influence likely to continue or are their choppy waters ahead?

This article looks at my own love for the US and tries to put it into the context of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the Backstop (the guarantee of no hard border on the island of Ireland).

There is an assumption in certain echelons of Government and the Tory party that the UK is a much more important country than Ireland and  that EU and US will automatically support the UK in a dispute between the two countries, the prime example being the Backstop. This has  so far proved to be incorrect in the case of the EU (and is extremely unlikely to change).

Some of the ERG in particular dream of a “clean” no-deal Brexit and realignment of the UK economy with the US. The high Tories dismiss Ireland as being irrelevant. Christopher Meyer former Ambassador to Washington said  “as the elephants fight, Ireland is the grass that gets trampled”. Could the US,  with the Trump regime, put brutal pragmatism over sentimentality?

The article will look at the Irish in America drawing from my own experience, the role of politics and economics, and finally draw conclusions as to the respective strength of the ERG and Irish positions.


I did not visit the US till I was 22 but it was a constant influence throughout my childhood and young adult years.

June 26 1963: corner of Drumcondra Road and Griffith Avenue, Dublin. I had spent the past few weeks perfecting “The Boys of Wexford” on my Melodica just in case the important visitor stopped. I walked down Grace Park Road from home, turned right at the Winking Willie and after half a mile  pushed to the the front of a large crowd. And there he was, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy standing up in an open top car waving to the crowd sweeping past in his motorcade. To this day he is the only US president I have seen in the flesh.

Fig 1. JFK’s visit to Ireland 1963.


March 1968: My father, Kevin, as a prominent Irish Folklorist and Historian undertook annual lecturing tours of the US around St Patrick’s Day. He normally returned with some gifts, but on this occasion after visiting St Paul-Minneapolis he was overburdened with American football and election paraphernalia. Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota, a prominent Irish-American and anti-Vietnam campaigner was much admired by my father, was running for president. My bedroom looked like that of an American Teenager. McCarthy did not win the Democratic nomination and Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in the Presidential election.

In Ireland, possibly even more than in the UK, admiration for the US was very high. As a child there was and endless stream of TV programmes, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Mr Ed and endless Western’s, The Lone RangerBonanza, Annie Oakley and my favourite The High Chapperal, based around Tucson Arizona.

The Moon landings fired my enthusiasm for science and as keen amateur astronomer, I envied the large telescopes in the American West – largely clustered around Tucson Arizona at the time.

Feb 1979: as a PhD student in the Astrophysics group in University College Dublin, I was offered the opportunity to go to Harvard. Not just Boston, but the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory  at Mt Hopkins south of Tucson. To say this was the opportunity of a lifetime would not be an overstatement. It was also a worry as it was the sort of group where you were expected to produce a first authored letter to Nature by the time your PhD was completed.


I still remember the smell of the warm desert air landing in Tucson. The US did not disappoint. My main worry that the world-leading scientists I interacted with would show my intellectual inadequacy could not have been further from the truth. They were kind, helpful and eager to impart knowledge. Academically it was fantastic, the facilities first class, and the welcome overwhelming. America was far wealthier than Ireland or the UK at the time and the superabundance and cheapness of everything was striking.

Fig 2. The Ridge, Harvard Smithsonian Observatory (2300 m). Mt Hopkins 1979 -scanned from an old photo taken by the author – apologies for the poor quality.


Being Irish was an extraordinary advantage – one almost felt like a rock star. Tons of invites to peoples homes and everyone seemed to want to meet me especially around the St. Patrick Day period (17th March). The Irish Americans however had a romanticised and simplistic view of Ireland and its history. They tended to blame England in particular for the Great Hunger (1845-48) considering it a genocide.  The people who moved to the US lost everything and the catastrophe is etched in the collective folk memory of the US Irish.

One incident some months later was illustrative of how the Irish were considered. I was driving with two American friends from DC to the Smoky Mountains National Park. At the time there was a 55 mph speed limit on the freeways. This seemed glacially slow and I was doing 67 mph following 4 cars when I was pulled over – they came up from behind. This could potentially have been quite serious as it was greater than 10 mph above the speed limit and a serious offence. I handed over my international driving permit. “We got you on radar – do you know what that is?” Rather than stating that I had an MSc in Physics and almost certainly knew far more about radar than the cop I said in a very broad Irish accent “Is that what they use to bring down plains at airports – Sur?” Looking over my permit he next said “Oh you’re  Irish. My grandfather was from Connemara – are you still using donkeys for transport?” I played along. After a few minutes I was given back my permit and a warning to keep under 55mph in future. My American friends were astounded and said that if they had been at the wheel there would have been serious consequences – at greater than 10mph above the speed limit: a federal offence.


As a Progressive and Social Democrat, I am very much a Democrat rather than Republican supporter. Jimmy Carter was president, but towards the end of my time in the US, the presidential campaign was in full swing and Ronnie Regan horrified me. The US had had a golden period from the end of the 2nd world war right up till the oil crisis of 1973, with rapidly rising living standards for pretty much all tranches of society. This had grinded to a halt after the oil crisis and there had been seven years of near stagnant living standards. Furthermore the Iranian Hostage Crisis  played out very badly for Carter. Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America”, used to sign off the CBS Evening News, easily the most watched  at the time, with “This is the xxx day of the Iran Hostage Crisis” – it continued for 444 days.

I returned to UCD in Autumn 1980 to write up my PhD before the election, but my worst fears were realised and Regan won.

Regan of course was a pale shadow of Trump but a believer in “Trickle Down Economics” and with Thatcher helped to cement Neoliberalism. He was more subtly racist than Trump, but the “southern strategy” was very much in evidence. Serendipity also played a large part, whereas Carter was extremely unlucky with Iran, the fall of the Soviet Union coincided with Regan’s presidency and he claimed a lot of the credit.  As with Thatcher and the Falkland’s War it boosted his popularity dramatically.

On a personal level the US position I was hoping to move to after my PhD disappeared (Regan directed a lot of research money towards Star-Wars like programmes) so, rather than returning to the US, I came to Sheffield and CERN. A few years later I was offered three separate Post Doc positions at Berkley, Chicago/Fermilab and Brookhaven, but by which time I was married, and my first wife categorically refused to move to the US. I visit regularly but never worked there again.

The Good Friday Agreement and US ownership

Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland after 30 years of the troubles and was hailed as a major triumph of diplomacy. There is a very strong feeling of ownership in the US, the EU (e.g. Michael Barnier) and Ireland. Strangely not so much in certain factions of the UK. The DUP never signed, are at best lukewarm, and the hard-wing elements hate the agreement. The ERG hate the blurred NI sovereignty it introduces – it is an anathema both to their passionate English Nationalism and their cognitive dissonance that a puny country like Ireland could thwart their Empire mark 2.0 destiny.

The US however have a very good claim to being a major force in negotiating the  GFA. Senator George Mitchell is considered pivotal in its brokering. Bill Clinton considers the GFA to be one of the major achievements of his presidency and a work of genius. Interest in the GFA and NI is still extremely high among the very powerful Irish American Community and recently both Clinton and Mitchell have warned about the reintroduction of a hard border.

American Trade and Investment in the UK and Ireland


The UK has been very successful in attracting FDI, particularly from Asia, with very high profile investment from Japan in for example Hitachi, Nissan and Honda. Ireland however has been number one in attracting US FDI particularly in the Tech, Pharma and Banking Sectors. The European headquarters of many major American companies is in Ireland, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, PayPay, AirBNB and Bank of America.

Fig. 3 shows the Cork Technology sector, with many American companies. Though Cork is Ireland’s second city it has a population similar to that of Sunderland, and the map is illustrative of the breath of FDI in Ireland.

Fig. 3 Cork Technology Sector.


Both the UK and Ireland trade extensively with the US. From the US perspective, especially under Trump, it is exports from the US that are important and the trade balance. The year 2016 is used for comparison here, more recent goods figures are available, but this is the year of the latest published IE services data.

The 2016 Irish figures are import from the US goods $12.3bn (MIT OEC), services $40.3bn (Irish CSO). Irish figures for exports (2016)  are goods are $41.2bn (MIT OEC) and $14.7bn services (Irish CSO). The trade was fairly balanced. Ireland’s substantial trade surplus in goods, is very nearly cancelled out by services.

The 2016 UK figures are US imports goods $46bn (MIT OEC)  Services £16.7bn (UK ONS) and Exports goods  $52bn (MIT OEC) and services £32.7bn (UK ONS). Goods are reasonably balanced, but the UK has a considerable surplus in services.

Overall then the economic situation is not clear cut. The trade volumes are greater between the US and the UK,  but nowhere near the factor of 10 that might be assumed from the relative size of the two countries. Ireland also headquarters so many American Companies in Europe, that it is likely to be strategically more valuable economically than the UK, particularly if the UK leaves the Single Market. Peace and stability on the island of Ireland is also economically of supreme importance to the US.

Another source of potential leverage over the US is ownership of  US National Debt. This is held via the vehicle of Treasury Securities (or more simply Treasuries). It is widely known that in the 1980’s and 90’s Japan was the major foreign holder of US debt, to be overtaken by China in the 2000s. Chinese leverage on the US via treasuries has been serious discussed in the context of the US/China trade war. The UK holds substantial quantities of Treasuries (in 4th place) could this give the UK some economic leverage?

It is less well known that Ireland also holds substantial quantities of Treasuries. The top five holders of Treasuries as of February ’19 were: 1. China $1130.9bn, 2. Japan $1072.4bn, 3. Brazil $307.7bn, 4. UK $283.8bn and possibly surprisingly 5. Ireland at $274.1bn.  The number 6 spot is held by Luxembourg  at $226.8bn. Essentially the Treasuries holdings by the UK and Ireland are within a few percent. It is unlikely that either country could gain any comparative advantage.

One other measure, that  of gross operating surplus by US companies in 2015 is shown in Fig. 4. Ireland is well ahead of the UK with  c80bn€ compared to c57bn€ for the UK. Trump is first and foremost a hard headed businessman and more likely to be convinced by such figures than sentiment towards Ireland and the UK.

Fig. 4 Gross Operating Surplus of US companies in the EU.



The Current Washington Climate and Trump

President Trump is currently in the White House. As a Republican, a business man, and an advocate of “America First” he is still somewhat of an unpredictable quantity. Historically the Irish have been very much associated with the Democrat Party, is Trump likely to be an ally to Ireland or indifferent?

What has changed over the past 50 years or so is that there are now a vast number of Irish American Republicans, many of whom are, or have been, very close to Trump: Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan, John Kelly, Brett Kananaugh and Mike Flynn, for example. The phenomenon of the Irish joining US reactionary conservationism is explored here by Fintan O’Toole.

One long running Washington “Institution” is the St. Patrick’s Day party on or around the 17th March. This has been an annual event since Pr. Truman was in the White House.  This starts at 6:00am and runs to 11:00pm and is  a celebration of the Irish in America and an opportunity for numerous meetings, but most important between that of the current Taoiseach and US President.

There was a worry that Trump might not be interested, but the opposite was the case. Apparently it was one of the things he was most looking forward to in office. Indeed rumour has it that in one of his first telephone conversations with PM May, he spent the first 5 minutes saying how much he loved Ireland and the Irish (much to May’s bafflement).

The Current Irish American Position

The Irish American position  has been strengthened even further, as in the American mid-term elections the Democrats regained control of Congress. Two high profile Irish American Democrats are Richard Neal and Brendan Boyle. Richard Neal is a passionate Irish American with three Irish Nationalist grandparents (the fourth being Cornish). He was heavily involved with the GFA  and is  chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland. Other prominent members are Nancy Pelosi-D and Joe Crowley-R  (under whom Leo Varadkar served an internship when part of the Washington Ireland Program). This group has the reputation of being truly bi-partisan and one of the few places Republicans and and Democrats  speak with one voice. More importantly perhaps, Neal is Chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. This is the committee that needs to sign off any trade deals, such as a bilateral UK-US deal.

Brendan Boyle, who is a first generation Irish American is a rising star and  introduced a resolution opposing hard Irish Border introduced in US Congress.

It seems likely that Congress will oppose any trade deal between the US and UK if the open border in Ireland is threatened. Announcements after the bi-lateral Trump-Varadkar meeting after the St Patrick’s Day event in a few weeks will be interesting!


Rather than the US elephant trampling Ireland underfoot – the image painted by Christopher Meyer, it is worth remembering that the elephant is the symbol of the US Republican party. It could well be that the US elephant is indeed on Ireland’s side. The Democrat symbol of the donkey, so charmingly  echoed by the cop who stopped me for speeding in the US, is also likely to take very unkindly to a no-deal Brexit and a consequent hard border on the island of Ireland.

It is perfectly possible that if the UK goes for a No-Deal Brexit, it will not only sour relations with the EU but will do so with the US as well. It is interesting that Liam Fox, considered by many as being the most fanatically pro-US Brexit supporter seems so firmly behind May’s deal. More than anyone in the administration he is likely to be able to read the mood in Washington.

I conclude by quoting again from Bonny Greer:

There is something profoundly stupid about the way Brexit is proceeding, in relation to Ireland. Britain’s ‘finest hour’ mentality will come up against something much stronger in the USA. When it comes to the UK – which is generally referred to as ‘England’ – deep down inside, just about everyone in America is Irish. In short, don’t be perceived to be disrespecting Ireland. Remember that I told you this.


    1. Sean Danaher -


      thanks, I had not seen the article but it is very good and thanks for the link. Securing the border is well nigh impossible. At height of the troubles 27,000 military personnel couldn’t secure the border at an estimated cost of 40-60bn pa for the British treasury.

      I think the demographics used are a bit out of date some more recent ones and even starker from the Unionist point of view.

      Its telling that Alliance, which is the pragmatic centrist party in NI is very pro backstop and is increasingly looking to Dublin rather than London.

      England sadly has lost a lot of respect and not just in NI.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      I suspect the author has never been to NI and seems to have little understanding of the province. I’m not remotely convinced by the piece.

      The major issue is lack of trust, which is why IE and the EU want the backstop. I’m not sure how long May is going to last but it is very possible a hard Brexiter could be leading the Tory party and even be PM within months.

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