1916 – 2016: Reflections
By Ambassador Anne Anderson
February / March 2017
“At a time of immense challenge in Ireland, in Europe, and in the United States, it is important that we draw on the perspective of memory, steady ourselves with reflection, and think boldly about the future.”
– Ambassador Anne Anderson
At home and abroad, the 1916 commemorations resonated beyond our greatest expectations, with more than 300 events, spanning every part of this country.
We recalled and remembered so much in the course of 2016, but for me one of the most powerful messages was the reminder of the importance of America’s engagement in Ireland at critical moments over the past century.
The story of Irish American involvement in political movements in Ireland stretches back a century earlier: in the 1820s, Irish Americans were already sending back dollars to support Daniel O’Connell’s drive for Catholic emancipation and later in the nineteenth century, Irish American money supported the Home Rule campaign of Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt’s agrarian movement. And the engagement extended on beyond the Rising; already in the few years after 1916, Éamon de Valera came to the U.S. to launch an Irish bond drive to fund the Irish Republican Army in the War of Independence. And on the story went.
It was never just about fundraising. In the long and tangled history of Ireland’s relationship with Britain, Irish America always hoped and sought to get the American government involved on the Irish side, so as to help balance the scales as a small country sought to work out its relationship with a larger neighbors. Sometimes the attempt failed, as when President Woodrow Wilson refused all entreaties to bring the Irish case to the table at the Versailles Peace Conference. Sometimes there was a degree of success, as in 1940, when the U.S. warned the British not to seize Irish ports as part of the war with Germany.
Fast-forward from 1940 to some thirty years later. The dialogue with America became more complicated when the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland in the late ’60s, and Irish America was deeply divided about how best to interpret what was happening and how best to engage. The subsequent fifteen years or so, culminating in signature of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, were long and agonizing ones, played out against a backdrop of violence and terrible atrocities in Northern Ireland, perpetrated on both sides of the divide. For much of this period, the British and Irish governments battled for the ear of the U.S. administration, until the two governments finally came to a sense of partnership in dealing with Northern Ireland, with important concessions on both sides.
This partnership between the Irish and British governments has largely held over the past thirty years – not without differences of judgement and perspective, but with a broad sense of shared purpose and with evolving structures and institutions within which these differences could be addressed. The existence of such a partnership has freed the U.S.
administration from trying to adjudicate between two friends and allowed it to throw its weight solidly and consistently behind the peace process. Through the involvement of successive U.S. presidents, and the role of successive envoys – most notably Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement – as well as through America’s financial contribution to the International Fund for Ireland, America has established a critical stake in the Northern Ireland peace process.
It is imperative that this active American involvement should continue. For all the extraordinary progress that has been made, there is significant unfinished business in Northern Ireland. The fragilities continue; currently, the outcome of the Assembly elections on March 2, is awaited with some anxiety. As we look back at the long sweep of the past 100 years and more, and particularly at developments over the past decades, our message to the U.S. government and to Irish America is clear: your involvement in the peace process on our island is still needed, still vitally important, and still capable of making a real difference.
We all know the foundation stories of Irish America: the Irish who poured into American cities before and after the Great Famine, until the middle of the 20th century. This narrative changed some fifty years ago. The immigration reforms in the U.S. in the mid-’60s were intended by the authors, and Senator Kennedy was principal among them, to end pro-European bias in immigration to the U.S. and to bring greater diversity to the immigrant pool. It was a perfectly worthy and understandable objective, and succeeded possibly even beyond the authors’ expectations. Senator Kennedy subsequently admitted that he did not anticipate that the Irish would suffer quite as much collateral damage as they did.
Over the past 50 years, the channels for legal Irish immigration to the U.S. have narrowed considerably. From time to time, there has been some temporary and time-bound relief, such as the Donnelly visas and the Morrison visas, but the trend has been inexorable. Today, we see the results: less than one fifth of one percent of all green cards issued in the U.S. go to Irish people.
As the demographics of this country have shifted, Irish America is shrinking in absolute terms and as a percentage of the overall population. And the generational distance has grown: now we have fewer and fewer first and second generation Irish, and more third and fourth generation. Inevitably, this has consequences in terms of engagement and connectivity, and obliges us to think in new and creative ways as to how we nurture and sustain that connectivity.
This narrowing of the channels for legal immigration over the past decades has had another consequence: the number of undocumented Irish in the U.S. has grown. While it is hard to arrive at a reliable figure, estimates from the Irish community suggest a number of 50,000 or so. It has been a longstanding objective of the Irish government – and one to which as ambassador I have devoted a great deal of my time – to help bring about immigration reform that would allow our undocumented to emerge from the shadows and to take their place in American society.
Side-by-side with that, we have been trying for years to open up a better channel for Irish people to enter and work here legally. For a people who did so much to help build this country – its physical fabric of roads and railways and bridges, and its social fabric of teachers and police and firefighters – it is surely reasonable that we should seek to improve our position beyond the current one fifth of one percent of green cards.
We are acutely conscious of the current uncertainties on the immigration front and the heightened fears and anxieties in the immigrant community in the aftermath of the U.S. elections. I want to reaffirm that the Irish government will continue to relentlessly press the case, both for the undocumented and for improved legal access, using all our friendships within the Administration and on both sides of the aisle in Congress. We will continue to set out the compelling human case for the undocumented. With regard to improved legal access, our point will remain a simple but cogent one: there is no country which has a greater mismatch between its contribution to the building of America and its current level of immigrant access.
This past year has provided much scope for reflection on the various interlinked relationships: between Ireland, Britain, the European Union, and the U.S. As we look back over the past one hundred years, there is a significant point to be noted: for the first 50 years of the Irish state, prior to our joining the European Union, Ireland’s relationship with the U.S. was a bilateral one; now it is a relationship that in some important respects is mediated through our E.U. membership.
Ireland and Britain joined the European Union together, on 1 January 1973. For Ireland and the Irish people, the experience of E.U. membership over nearly forty-five years has been transformative. Our joint membership of the European Union has done a great deal to strengthen the British-Irish relationship, and also I would suggest, has conditioned our relationship with the U.S. in a very positive way.
In terms of shared values and a shared world-view, there has been no closer alignment than that which has existed between the U.S. and Europe. Together, we helped construct the post-World War II international order; whether at the United Nations, the World Trade Organization or the Bretton Woods institutions, we have built the scaffolding which supports and underpins that order.
Today, what has been so carefully built over so many decades is at risk. The unequal benefits of globalization, and the tensions caused by the inexorable advance of technology and the consequent redundancy of some traditional forms of human labour, have been eating away at our societies. Populism is becoming an increasingly potent force, and we are seeing its out-workings on both sides of the Atlantic.
For us in Ireland, although of course we fully accept the democratic outcome of the British referendum, the Brexit decision was deeply unwelcome. Dealing with the implications of that decision – for our economy, for the relationships between North and South on our island, for Europe as a whole – will be one of the biggest challenges we have faced in the history of our state.
Brexit is also impacting the E.U.-U.S. relationship in ways that are only beginning to be played out. President Trump and members of his administration have made clear their sympathy for Brexit, and that indeed is their choice and prerogative. But it is crucially important that this is not seen as a zero-sum game: maintaining the U.S. bond with Britain in no way requires or provides a rationale for loosening the U.S. bond with Europe. Too much is at stake to allow that vital relationship to erode or fray.
For Ireland, our history and geography tie us closely both to the U.S. and to Europe. In a well-known speech delivered seventeen years ago, our then deputy prime minister Mary Harney mused as to whether Ireland was closer to Boston or Berlin. In truth, we would never wish to be put in a position of choosing between the two. We want to see the continuation of a robust and firm friendship between Europe and the U.S., built on shared values of respect for human rights, rule of law, and working together towards a more peaceful and just world.
As the new administration beds down here, as Europe prepares for key elections in France and Germany over the coming months, and as Britain and Europe work their way through the divorce proceedings which lie ahead, all of these relationships have the potential to become more brittle. Ireland has an important role to play, and multiple interests to protect. Britain is our nearest neighbor, with whom we share unique ties. At the same time, we are a deeply committed member of the European family, and we enjoy an exceptionally close friendship with the U.S. In this period of fluidity and shift, we will be working to protect and strengthen these various relationships and to try to ensure they do not come into tension with one another.
How things have evolved and changed over the past century. I mentioned earlier the fundraising for Irish political causes that was so much part of the Irish-American tradition in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Today, we still have a thriving philanthropy on the part of Irish Americans – through the Ireland Funds and other organizations – that support a tremendous range of worthwhile projects in both parts of our island.
We are gratified that Irish Americans are still, with great generosity, ready to offer such philanthropic support to their ancestral homeland. But I am also glad to say that the scales have evened up somewhat over recent years, with the Irish government providing substantial financial assistance to our diaspora through the Emigrant Support Program.
In the classic area of economic relationships – investment and trade – the changes have been truly striking.
The first half of the twentieth century saw a succession of bleak economic decades for Ireland – the post war economic recovery, which much of the rest of Europe, enjoyed passed Ireland by. By the ’50s, emigration was sky high and emigrants’ remittances from Britain and the U.S. kept many families afloat.
From 1958, there was a radical reframing of economic policy in Ireland, when the then Finance Minister, later Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, launched the First Programme for Economic Development. Over the subsequent years, during the ’60s and especially following our E.U. membership in 1973, we were transformed from an economic backwater, with domestic markets protected behind high tariff walls, to one of the most open and globalized economies in the world.
Throughout the past decades, foreign investment in Ireland has thrived on the back of a low corporate tax rate, investment in free education which gave us one of the best educated and most highly rated workforces in the world, and access from 1973 onwards to a European-wide free market in goods and services. FDI, especially from the U.S., became a key driving force in our economy.
Ireland’s economic story since the ’60s is certainly not one of uninterrupted success, and the experience of the post-2008 crash is still raw and recent. But though the pain of the austerity years has not been erased, Irish people have shown extraordinary determination and resilience in reaching for recovery. That recovery has now fully taken hold and our economic growth over the past few years has been healthy and broad-based.
Looking back over the past couple of decades, one of the critical points to underline is that the economic relationship between Ireland and the U.S. has become a two-way street. In the earlier years, FDI was almost exclusively one-way traffic; the U.S. was sending and Ireland was receiving. Now, with some of the more traditional Irish companies – such as Oldcastle – very active in the U.S., but also many young Irish-based companies – whose founders often got their start in U.S. multinationals in Ireland seeking to spread their wings in the U.S. market, we have a very different equation.
Today, U.S. multinationals in Ireland directly employ some 140,000 Irish people, and Irish companies in the U.S. have tens of thousands of American employees across all 50 states.
Trade too has evened up – we remain a big exporter of goods to the U.S. but are now also a major importer of U.S. services. In other words, mirroring many other aspects of the relationship, there has been a coming of age in economic relations.
This is another area where we will need to stay vigilant and engaged. With the current fierce questioning of globalization, it is important that Ireland be a voice for the kind of “good globalization” we have experienced. Not an unthinking cheerleader for every aspect of globalization, but a strong advocate for the shared benefits that flow from rules-based international investment and trade. We know from our own history the dead ends of protectionism, and we know that openness is the only viable choice for the 21st century. We will continue to make that case clearly and vocally.
History has its coincidences: it has not escaped us that, just at the time we were commemorating the events of 1916 – the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland – we found ourselves facing another radical adjustment in British-Irish relations: for the first time ever, one of us will be inside the European Union and the other outside.
There is no minimizing the Brexit challenge that lies ahead, which will test us in very many ways. But I believe that all of our centenary experience – this process we have lived through of remembering, reflecting, and re-imagining – will have helped to fortify us to meet that challenge. We certainly do not have all the answers, but we are better grounded, with a surer sense of who we are, as we seek those answers. And so, in that very real sense, the centenary commemorations will have achieved one of their key objectives: looking back has also helped us to face forward. ♦
Adapted from “1916 to 2016: Reflections”address by Ambassador Anderson at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU Thursday, February 16, 2017.