The Taoiseach in Washington British politicians often talk warmly about the “special relationship” that the United Kingdom enjoys with the United States. It is used to describe the diplomatic, political, cultural, economic, military, and historic ties to the US. We also enjoy something of a special relationship with the US, based mostly on friendship, family, and cultural ties. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Washington this week to take advantage of that on Ireland’s behalf and it is important, given the chaos of Brexit, that we now renew and strengthen our friendship with the US, while remaining a steadfast member of the European Union.
In global terms, we may not be powerful, but we are influential and there is no reason why, in a post-Brexit world, we cannot take over the role of Washington’s leading EU interlocutor, at a time of transatlantic tensions over US trade and foreign policy. Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the US, believes we can do just that.
In an interview last year, with The Guardian newspaper, he stressed that Ireland had no desire to take anything away from the UK, but would need to counterbalance the negative impact of Brexit by taking advantage of the opportunities it presents. He predicted that Ireland “will be the country in the European Union, after Brexit, that has the closest and most intensive relationship with the United States”.
Achieving that is more necessary than ever, in the light of the UK’s new plan, under which EU goods arriving from the Republic and remaining in Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs. Trade and industry experts are already rubbishing the plan as unworkable, while Irish politicians smell a rat, convinced that the plan, and its timing, is designed to cause panic among the agribusiness sector here and force the Irish Government to abandon the backstop at next week’s meeting of the European Council.
The Taoiseach will need the cunning of Bertie Ahern, the bonhomie of Albert Reynolds, and the smarts of Charlie Haughey, as well as his own brittle charm, to build on Ireland-US relations. He appears to be making a good start, by visiting the US Chamber of Commerce and highlighting to business leaders the two-way economic relationship between both countries.
The investments of 700 US companies here, employing 150,000 people, are balanced by those of over 520 Irish companies in the US, employing 100,000 Americans in all 50 US states. Today, Mr Varadkar meets US president, Donald Trump, at the White House for talks, as well as the traditional shamrock bowl presentation.
That may seem embarrassingly cheesy on this side of the Atlantic, but it means a lot to more than 35m Americans who identify as having Irish heritage. If the UK’s tariff plan is, indeed, little more than a cynical device to put pressure on Ireland on the backstop, it shows that the British are prepared to sacrifice their special relationship with us for political ends.
In that event, the support of both the EU and the US gains increased significance. We need all the friends we have left.