Daniel McConnell: Joe Biden wears his Irishness on his sleeve

Ireland has secured a friend in the Oval Office for the next four years
Daniel McConnell: Joe Biden wears his Irishness on his sleeve

The owners of this shop in Ballina, Co Mayo, were displaying their support for Joe Biden as he was being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States of America has a particular significance — not only for Irish America, but for Ireland itself.

For five decades, this country has looked to the brutally truncated administration of John F Kennedy as a shining representative of the power of the Irish American experience. Biden’s Irish credentials may even surpass those of the iconic JFK.

He unashamedly wears his Irishness on his sleeve regularly, quotes Irish poets, and his family experience is far more in keeping with the traditional blue-collar lives lived by those who travelled to America from here.

Indeed, in his emotion-filled farewell speech before leaving Delaware for Washington, he remarked that Ireland has “the greatest poets”.

"My colleagues always kid me about quoting Irish poets all the time," he said. "They think I do it because I’m Irish. I do it because they’re the best poets," he said.

President Joe Biden speaks at the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Picture: Kevin Dietsch/Pool Photo via AP

President Joe Biden speaks at the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Picture: Kevin Dietsch/Pool Photo via AP

Watching many of his speeches, Biden rarely fails to mention the toils and struggles of his Finnegan and Blewitt relations who went before him.

His near 40-year career in US politics has seen him play his part in the endeavours for peace on this island since the 1980s.

He was a founding member of the Friends of Ireland group, a cross-party body which dedicated itself to the delivery of peace in the North, along with Ted Kennedy and then speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill.

Chiming with the efforts of John Hume and others here, the role of the lobby in Washington was a key element in the final delivery of a settlement in 1998.

Distant cousins of Joe Biden — Ciara and Andrea McKevitt — celebrated his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States in Co Louth, “with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and french fries on the menu and Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks on in the background".

Distant cousins of Joe Biden — Ciara and Andrea McKevitt — celebrated his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States in Co Louth, “with cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and french fries on the menu and Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks on in the background".

As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden played his part too in ensuring the visibility and access of Irish governments in Washington was raised.

I accompanied Enda Kenny to Washington DC in 2016, when he was acting taoiseach,  and saw the incredible access granted to the Irish delegation and the importance of same.

Around the entire visit hinged many crucial business dealings and decisions.

His subsequent visit to Ireland the same year was a clear demonstration of the new president’s affection for the old sod.

His quoting of the late Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy following his election chimed around the world.

"This is our moment," Biden said, "to make hope and history rhyme." 

He has used that phrase on several occasions.

Also, his expressions of support to Ireland during the last phases of the Brexit negotiations in December, underpinning his support for the Good Friday Agreement, was important for Ireland but also done from a position of extensive experience and knowledge of what he is talking about.

But beyond his fondness for Ireland, what can we expect from a Biden administration?

While the diplomatic world has breathed a sigh of relief now that Donald Trump has left office, it has been interesting to see many leading commentators and analysts say Biden is unlikely to undo many of the tariffs and policies introduced by his controversial predecessor.

The main economic concern from an Irish perspective is whether the Biden administration moves to force multinational corporations, many of which have significant bases here, to route their taxes back through the US. Trump’s term in office was dominated by his trade war with China and the imposition of tariffs. 

Europe did not escape either, with hefty tariffs placed on steel and car imports. Indeed, the EU hit back and only last week imposed €4bn worth of tariffs on farm and gym equipment imports from the US.

Mayo county councillor Mark Duffy in front of a mural in Ballina, Co Mayo, celebrating Joe Biden's inauguration as the 46th president of the United States.	Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Mayo county councillor Mark Duffy in front of a mural in Ballina, Co Mayo, celebrating Joe Biden's inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

What will Biden do?

Many hope that the change of administration will see a distinct warming in relations, and an end to the overt hostilities, with some speculating that the two blocs could come together to challenge the increasing threat of the Chinese powerhouse.

Paschal Donohoe, speaking to US media in recent days in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup, made clear that none of the difficulties that existed between the EU and the US over the past four years are insurmountable.

During the campaign, Biden spoke in favour of boosting US manufacturing and penalising companies looking to move offshore, which could have implications for Ireland given the large pharmaceutical industry here.

One area of potential agreement is on the issue of a digital tax. Ireland, which is the European headquarters for many of the world’s largest tech companies, has fiercely resisted pressure from within the EU to raise its 12.5% corporate tax rate, preferring to look to the OECD to agree a global solution. Under Biden, the US could re-engage with this process.

Also of major significance to Ireland is Biden’s plan to send a sweeping immigration proposal to Congress.

This bill would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11m undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including the estimated 10,000-15,000 Irish currently residing there illegally. The proposal would need to be approved by Congress, which baulked at similar reforms proposed by former president Barack Obama in 2013.

President Joe Biden salutes as his wife Jill puts her hand over her heart as they review the troops from the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the inauguration, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. Picture: David Tulis/Pool Photo via AP

President Joe Biden salutes as his wife Jill puts her hand over her heart as they review the troops from the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the inauguration, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. Picture: David Tulis/Pool Photo via AP

However, the plan, which also would also immediately protect millions of people from being deported, marks a dramatic shift from president Trump's hardline policies that made life increasingly more difficult for people living in the country without legal status.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, speaking in the Dáil, said it is one of the issues he intends discussing with the new US president when they speak.

“Progress has been made on the undocumented Irish in recent times. It has been very difficult to get agreement across the aisle, or total and unanimous agreement on the E-3 visa situation," Mr Martin said. 

"We are continuing to work on that and we now have an opportunity with the new president-elect to do so,” he said.

While Republicans in Washington have already come out against it, Biden has a fair wind, and could achieve progress on this matter quickly, should he decide to make it a priority in his first 100 days.

Mr Martin also said he looks forward to welcoming Mr Biden to Ireland as president during his term of office. And, as Taoiseach, Mr Martin will be exceptionally keen to make it to Washington for the traditional St Patrick’s Day festivities, even if they happen in truncated form this year.

Ireland will certainly have a friend in the Oval Office for the next four years and a Biden administration will ensure our standing in DC remains elevated way above what our size and power should fairly determine.

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