In 1920, many Irish-American voters were focused on their homeland’s struggle for independence from Britain. It was hardly the biggest issue of the campaign, dominated by domestic economic and social concerns in America’s first post-World War I election. U.S. Sen. Warren Harding, an Ohio Republican, defeated the state’s Democratic Gov. James M. Cox.
In 2020, Irish-American voters with relations, friends, or business interests on either side of the Irish border are watching Britain’s departure from the European Union, the so-called Brexit. British officials recently suggested they might break an earlier trade deal regarding the Irish border. As National Review explains:
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a land border with a member of the EU — the Irish Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the decades-long civil conflict in the province between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists (That’s NR’s word, I’d say nationalists.), established an open border on the island of Ireland so that people and goods could travel seamlessly between North and South. This was a rather easy measure to implement because both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU at the time, and so they were bound by the same customs and market regulations.
The sticking point in the exit negotiations between the British and EU delegations was how to maintain an open border in Ireland once the UK had left the EU regulatory framework. Differing regulations and standards between the two countries could, without any physical border infrastructure, lead to rampant smuggling and undermine the internal integrity of the EU market. But all sides balked at the idea of putting up a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic given the violent history and still-volatile politics surrounding the constitutional question.
Now, as The Washington Post reported, “relations between Europe and Britain have grown shouty.” American politicians want to be heard, too.
“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. Former Vice President Joe Biden, this year’s Democratic presidential nominee, issued a similar Sept. 16 tweet: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. 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.”
President Donald Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland weighed in a few days later:
“Everyone assures me that no one is interested in seeing a hard border between the republic and Northern Ireland,” Mick Mulvaney said in an interview with the Financial Times. “We appreciate that, we respect that and we agree with that. The one thing I keep trying to assure is on the front of everybody’s mind is avoiding a border by accident. The Trump administration, state department and the U.S Congress would all be aligned in the desire to see the Good Friday agreement preserved to see the lack of a border maintained.”
Still, Brexit is hardly the top of mind issue for Irish-American voters, or any segment of the American electorate. With early voting underway in several states, the 2020 campaign is a referendum on Trump’s overall behavior, his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, and now a fierce fight over filling, or waiting to fill, a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy.
Which helps illustrate another point:
“The Irish vote has become not, unfortunately, the lockup of the Democratic Party,” Brian O’Dwyer, vice president of the Irish American Democrats, told The New York Times in May. “But it is one of the few swing votes, along with the Catholic vote, left in the United States, and you can see various patterns back and forth where the Irish in particular have gone one way or another.”
Or as a columnist Tom Deignan wrote in August in Irish America magazine, “2020 may finally be the year we recognize the many shades of green out there amidst the red and blue of politically-polarized America.”
- Genealogist Megan Smolenyak’s story in Irish America on Biden’s Irish roots. He was a 2013 inductee to the magazine’s Hall of Fame.
- Trump’s bid for Irish-American support (and campaign cash) through t-shirts and pint glasses.
- My previous posts about the Irish issue at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago and Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.