Congressman Joe Crowley’s primary defeat this week to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to Ireland and anyone who cares about the US-Ireland relationship. The writing has long been on the wall but too little is being done to seriously reimagine the relationship.

There was nothing more indicative of the non-existent Irish American vote and diminishing political influence than a couple of St. Patrick’s Day parades in 2014. Two new mayors — Marty Walsh in Boston and Bill de Blasio in New York City — refused to march because members of the LGBT community were not welcomed. The Boston Beer Company, Heineken, and even the most iconic of Irish brands, Guinness, withdrew their support for the parades. Politicians and companies were more concerned about the power and influence of the LGBT community than they were of the Irish. That’s because Irish American influence has been exaggerated.

As fewer Irish have immigrated to the US in the last two decades, and as America has become more post-ethnicity (most of us are a mix of various ancestries), fewer Americans tick the box on the US census form that denotes Ireland as their ancestral home. A couple of decades ago, the number was 44 million. That number has declined to 33 million but the degree to which Irish Americans identify with Ireland in any meaningful way varies widely, with the vast majority having very little connection.

There is no monolithic Irish America. No cohesive entity. No voting bloc. For electoral purposes, we are simply a segment of white Americans of European descent.

If there ever was an Irish vote, it hasn’t existed at the national level for decades. Discrimination against Catholic Americans led them to rally around the campaign of John F. Kennedy. There was talk of an Irish American vote during the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton elections but that was somewhat misleading in that the Catholic Americans who were Irish may have voted on the basis of their Catholicism (on issues such as abortion), but only a handful would have voted on the basis of candidates’ positions on Irish issues. Irish-Americans are Democrats and Republicans. A large number of Irish Americans voted for Donald Trump, belying the long-held assertions of some that Irish Americans are disproportionately Democrat.

In 2015, Stella O’Leary, of Irish American Democrats, spoke at the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. In conversation with former Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery, O’Leary claimed (as she has long done) that Congressman Joe Crowley’s 2014 election victory was evidence of the power of the Irish vote. She said his district was “18% Irish” and that “his vote is 45% Irish because the others are not voting (Indians, Afghanis).”

That is complete nonsense. US Census figures showed that Irish Americans made up only 3.7% of Crowley’s district. About 47% of the district (NY-14th) was Latino, 25%, White, 16% Asian, and 10% African American. It was impossible for 45% of Crowley’s vote to come from the Irish as he would have had to receive more Irish votes than there were Irish voters!

Fast forward to this week and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez soundly defeated Crowley in the Democratic primary. At 28 years old, Ocasio-Cortez is young, Puerto Rican, socialist, and female and won with 57.5% of the vote, despite Crowley outspending her 10 to 1.

Demographics in the US have been changing for some time. Talk of an Irish American vote has been nothing more than smoke and mirrors and it’s time that those who care about the relationship stop humoring such nonsense, get their heads out of the sand, and seriously consider innovative ways to build the relationship for the future.

While I welcome the Taoiseach’s decision to put more diplomats in more cities as part of his plan to double Ireland’s “global footprint” – more bodies without an actual strategy is of little value. For decades, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs reports on the future of the relationship have lacked vision, or they repeat ideas that many of us have put out there for years, which they simply never act on.

There is also a lack of Irish American and Irish philanthropy proportionate to the population. There were funds when Ireland was poor and when the Troubles raged in Northern Ireland, but it takes a different sort of vision to recognize that the problem for the relationship is not so much in Ireland as it is in America.

It is well past time to build a new relationship from the ground up. To have future influence, Ireland needs to actively engage not only with the diaspora but the “diaspora plus”. Demographics in the US are not on the side of Ireland, but there is no reason why people who aren’t Irish can’t become interested in Ireland – culture being the greatest calling card. We’ve worked consistently on this front at the US-Ireland Alliance. The George J. Mitchell Scholarships have always been open to future leaders of every ethnicity in the US, not just Irish Americans. At our Oscar Wilde Awards in Los Angeles, we have long made artists ‘honorary’ Irish – turns out that honoring J.J. Abrams (director of STAR WARS) was a good thing for Ireland. We have had, before successive Irish governments, a proposal to teach American high school students (Irish and non-Irish) about Ireland, with the aim of getting them to Ireland for a visit during their formative years. Those proposals just collect dust.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of interest, beyond platitudes. Is there any will to spend the time and money necessary to build the next generation relationship? This is the responsibility of many – the Irish Government, American multinationals in Ireland, and individuals. It’s all about business, education and culture and strong relationships in those areas, properly cultivated and harnessed, will bring future political goodwill, and possibly clout.

When the US-Ireland Alliance was created twenty years ago, it was with a very real question about whether or not a critical mass would recognize these demographic shifts and nurture a different relationship. One can only hope Crowley’s defeat will serve as a wakeup call – for too many years, those who can make a difference have just hit the snooze button.

About Trina Vargo

Trina Vargo created the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998 after having served for eleven years as a Foreign Policy Advisor to Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Working directly with political leaders in Northern Ireland, the Clinton Administration, and the Irish Government, she served as a key behind-the-scenes player in the Northern Ireland peace process. She created the George J. Mitchell Scholarship program and the Oscar Wilde Awards which honor the Irish in entertainment. Views are her own.
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