DUBLIN — In March 2007 the family history website, ancestry.co.uk, established that Barack Obama’s third great-grandfather Fulmuth Kearney was an Irish immigrant who arrived in New York in 1850. His birthplace was identified as Moneygall, a village of two pubs straddling counties Offaly and Tipperary.
“I’ve always maintained that Obama is an Irish name,” President-elect Obama quipped on hearing the news. “Just put the apostrophe after the ‘O’ and we are all set.”
In Ireland, however, connecting Obama to his Irish roots is a serious matter. The Irish place much store on ethnic links with Congress and the White House. When Obama telephoned Irish prime minister Brian Cowen after his election, Cowen invited him to visit Moneygall at the earliest opportunity.
The first visit to Ireland by a U.S. president, that by John F. Kennedy in 1963, is celebrated here as a great national occasion, though Kennedy declined to address the burning issue of partition in deference to the Washington’s Cold War alliance with London.
It wasn’t until Bill Clinton took office in 1993 that a U.S. administration felt able to challenge the contention that Northern Ireland was an internal problem for the U.K. and nobody else’s business.
The Irish successfully made the case to Clinton that American intervention could persuade the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) that political dividends would follow an end to violence.
Clinton’s dispatch of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy to Northern Ireland helped bring about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which underpins today’s power-sharing executive in Belfast. President George W. Bush kept the White House door open to visiting Irish politicians to bolster the peace.
Hillary Clinton, perceived as a “friend of Ireland,” was the initial choice for president among many Irish-American activists. Hillary’s supporters readily transferred to Obama when he got the nomination.
Though Ireland had officially maintained good relations with President Bush, providing Shannon Airport as a refueling stop for troops en route to Iraq, the great majority of Irish people longed for a U.S. president who would engage with, rather than confront, the world. Like everyone else in Europe, they were caught up in the emotional whirlwind of the Obama victory, many staying up until 5 a.m. in Dublin on election night to watch, teary-eyed, on television, as Obama made his victory speech.
Obama had, however, ruffled some feathers in Irish-America during his campaign. The Illinois senator declined an invitation to an Irish issues forum in Pennsylvania, and suggested that a special U.S. envoy in Belfast was no longer necessary.
Of more concern to Dublin was the potential impact of an Obama presidency on the Irish economy. Obama had campaigned on altering U.S. corporate tax laws to force American companies to create more jobs at home. This could mean that U.S. firm would pull out of Ireland, where they enjoy a tax regime of 12.5 percent, a third of what their U.S. taxes would be. American subsidiaries employ 96,000 people in Ireland, though it is not all one way: Irish companies in the U.S. provide over 70,000 jobs for American workers.
The Irish government has since received assurances from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, that Obama wants to target the “Cayman Island sham corporation types,” rather than the big U.S. companies in Ireland. The U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Thomas C. Foley, predicted that trying to stop U.S. companies coming to Ireland was like trying to stop the weather. Despite its deepening recession, the Irish government is continuing to invest in research to maintain its attraction for high-end U.S. investment.
Though Irish-America has become part of mainstream America, one ethnic issue remains outstanding, the legalization of the so-called “undocumented” Irish in the United States. This has caused a bitter split among former allies in the peace process of the 1990s. Trina Vargo, Obama advisor on Irish issues, has suggested that it is “morally wrong” for Irish activists to seek a special deal for the estimated 20,000-60,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the U.S. (no one knows the precise figure) when there are several million illegal Hispanics in the same dilemma.
Pushing the issue could harm the Ireland-U.S. relationship and lead to a divisive debate between Irish-Americans and Hispanics, she maintained. Disguising a special Capitol Hill deal for the Irish would be “to put lipstick on a pig.”
Irish Voice publisher Niall O’Dowd, chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform in New York, called her remarks offensive to Irish families living in the shadows in the U.S., and argued that if successful, they could provide a legalization model for their Hispanic counterparts.
Brian Cowen leans towards the latter view and may bring up the issue when he meets Obama in Washington in three months. Irish prime ministers enjoy automatic access to the White House on one day of the year — St. Patrick’s Day — for a ritual presentation of shamrock. On March 17, in the words of the Corrigan Brothers in their YouTube hit, there will be “no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.”
Dublin politicians know well however that that despite the green ties, and despite having a friend, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State and an Irish-American, Joe Biden, as vice president, Ireland will not be a priority for an administration facing economic calamity.
Cowen has ordered his officials to undertake a complete review of U.S.-Irish relations as President Obama takes office.
Like other world leaders he is hoping that Obama’s leadership will inspire change and help lead the world out of its present mess, which will benefit all countries, including Ireland.