It's time to cut the blarney

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill

St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. The Irish economy is in tatters. Elections were just held, Fianna Fail party took its own shellacking and Fine Gael will lead the next government. Young people in Ireland are also voting with their feet. With few jobs at home, many are leaving for places where the jobs are, like Australia and Canada.

The silver lining may be that things have fallen so far that it causes genuine reflection in Ireland. It is also time for Ireland’s friends in the US to be honest about the relationship.

Northern Ireland’s years of bloodshed have thankfully ended. Since the mid-1990’s Irish emigration to the US has declined dramatically. Despite Ireland’s current financial difficulties, the days of Irish Americans sending remittances to poor relatives are over. The US-Ireland relationship must be radically altered to reflect reality. If there is to be a future for this relationship, it must be built on the pillars of culture, education and business. In a post-ethnicity America, a new generation – Irish and non-Irish – must be fostered to retain the links. And vestiges of the past, that only serve as a drag on needed progress, must be abandoned.

It must first be recognized that there is no ‘Irish vote.’ If there ever was such a thing, it hasn’t existed for decades. Irish-Americans are Democrats and Republicans and they vote on the basis of issues like the economy, health care, and education. They do not vote on the basis of Irish issues – largely because there no longer are ‘Irish’ issues.

Friends of Ireland, including US politicians, should speak frankly with the Irish. Congressman Richie Neal (D-MA) was recently a guest on a popular evening news program on Irish television. The interviewer asked if he and other prominent Irish American politicians weren’t, quietly behind the scenes, trying to negotiate a better deal for Ireland with the IMF. He was also asked if he would be steering American companies to set up in Ireland. Congressman Neal never directly answered the questions, I assume because he was being polite. But we do a disservice by not being direct. I wish the Congressman would have said, ‘no, Irish American politicians aren’t secretly negotiating with the IMF and if I encouraged U.S. companies to set up there, when unemployment is high in my own country, my constituents would vote me out of office.’

The Irish need to be honest with themselves and with each other and they should expect nothing less from America. Ireland’s national aversion to truth-telling is part of the reason for its current difficulties.

After hearing an American make a patently false statement on a radio program in Ireland, I asked an Irish journalist why the person wasn’t challenged. I was told, ‘it’s because what he says is what we want to believe about ourselves.’ A few years ago, I wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Times in which I merely stated the obvious, and it resulted in false, malicious and repeated attacks. I wrote that if US immigration reform comes, it will be comprehensive, but there would not be a ‘special deal’ for illegal Irish immigrants. After it was published, a friendly Irish journalist told me, ‘What you wrote was absolutely correct, you just shouldn’t have said it.’ As long as that mindset continues, and as long as people are attacked for telling the truth, Ireland will never recover. If a new and honest relationship cannot develop, there will not be a next generation of Americans who will have the sort of passionate commitment of Ted Kennedy, Pat Moynihan, Tip O’Neill and others.

What should be done?

Congress should stop funding the International Fund for Ireland (IFI). For 25 years the American taxpayer has given nearly $500 million to an initiative that was to last for five years. There is no credible reason to continue this funding. The recent continuing resolution specifically eliminated funding for the IFI and it should stay that way. The Fund was created when there was massive bloodshed and economic deprivation in Northern Ireland. But much IFI funding is spent on pet, local projects that neither the British nor Northern Ireland governments would fund themselves. There is a culture of dependency in Northern Ireland and we are enablers. Northern Ireland’s unemployment rate is lower than that of the US. While dissidents will always try to destabilize the peace, since April 2009, there has been only one murder related to paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

When Prime Minister Enda Kenny comes to Washington in March, he’ll have the opportunity to present a forward-looking Ireland to American politicians. Historically, Prime Ministers have wasted valuable time with US Presidents by asking for things they either know they won’t get and often don’t even believe in themselves. He shouldn’t ask for more IFI funding. It is time to know when to say thanks and move on. And he shouldn’t waste his moment on illegal immigration. It’s a given that President Obama would like to sort this issue more than the Irish Prime Minister. It is hypocritical to ask American politicians to do for illegal immigrants in this country what Irish politicians won’t do for those illegally in their own. Instead, the Prime Minister should spend his time talking about what Ireland has to offer. He should talk about developments in wind and wave energy; the role Irish arts and culture can play on the country’s recovery; and instances where Ireland is giving back – such as the cross-party decision to match funding — dollar for dollar — for an endowment for the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program that builds ties between Ireland and future American leaders.

Businesses, trade associations, non-profits, and universities should work to encourage links that benefit both countries. But it is not the job of government to encourage American companies to leave the US. The Secretary of State’s own economic envoy for Northern Ireland finally, recently told an audience in Northern Ireland that they need to invest in themselves. (And why do we even still have an economic envoy for Northern Ireland?)

Philanthropists who care about this relationship, shouldn’t stop giving, they should just be smart about their giving. They should foster a modern relationship, not an antiquated one.

These things are not solutions to an economic problem, but rather things that need to be done in their own right. The free and open exchange of ideas is important to ensure that Ireland makes the right economic choices in the time ahead and that the US-Ireland relationship remains strong for future generations. 

If the forces that resist change are allowed to prevail, a next generation of Americans will simply switch off to the relationship. Ireland can rebound, though it will be far from immediate. And if, and it is a big if, enough Americans can be interested in retaining the relationship, it can endure and flourish – but it must begin with honesty and by cutting the blarney.

Trina Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance; she previously served as foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward M. Kennedy