Just over three million Irish people are eligible to vote in next Saturday’s children’s referendum.
Almost 100 times that number are entitled to cast their ballots today in the vote to elect the 44th president of the United States. Both events are significant to the Irish nation but, in some respects, the American election is more important to us.
Anyone who thinks of the US presidential election as just another soap opera with fancy frocks and Hollywood smiles should think again. Whoever becomes the next US president will matter not just to Americans but to the world at large.
The United States may no longer be the military and economic superpower it once was but it still holds huge sway on the global stage. The world economy — and by extension the Irish economy — is umbilically linked to the American economy so, as the old saying goes, if America sneezes, the world gets a cold.
America has been sneezing since 2008 and much of the world has caught the bug and seems incapable of getting rid of it. The EU is particularly affected and the Great Recession has demonstrated just how closely tied the misfortunes of the EU’s 27 member states have become and also how closely their collective economic fate is connected to that of the US.
Sluggish consumer demand in America is a major problem for European economies looking to revive growth through exports, particularly countries like Ireland which have an open economy largely dependent on exports for domestic prosperity.
Rarely has so much depended on the outcome of a single election. The state of US debt has an impact on financial markets everywhere and the country faces a fiscal challenge that makes Ireland’s economic troubles look like a grazed knee. A robust American economy is vital for a global recovery.
But there is hope on the horizon. The latest polls show Barack Obama’s lead over his rival, Mitt Romney, is widening and if the president secures a second term that should augur well for Ireland.
Obama has a bit of a grá for Ireland, as he demonstrated last year when he visited his ancestral homeland in Co Offaly. Romney, on the other hand, appears largely unaware of the Emerald Isle.
But sentiment is not enough. When Ronald Reagan sipped a pint of Smithwicks in Ballyporeen in June, 1984, he spoke about what he called the Irish-American tradition. What he failed to mention was that he had already decided to sign into law a prohibition on Irishborn children of US citizens being entitled to citizenship themselves. He also reduced welfare payments to the Irish spouses of US federal employees.
In contrast, Bill Clinton, who has no claim to Irish ancestry, put his heart and soul into the peace process in Northern Ireland and there are few who would doubt that, without his input, it would never have happened.
Whoever wins the US presidential election, it will be essential for Irish political leaders to engage with the new administration. Ireland may not be a world leader, but it has shown a capacity to punch above its weight and demonstrate that influence can trump power on the global stage.
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