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The non-existent Irish American vote

By Trina Y. Vargo

Huffington Post, May 18, 2011

I’m delighted to see President Obama make good on his campaign promise to visit Ireland.  He has a great ability to inspire and if any place needs a ‘yes we can moment’, it’s Ireland.

There are already the inevitable suggestions that he is making the trip as part of his 2012 re-election campaign.  The Irish Independent reported that “his popularity is likely to soar among the Irish-American vote.”  And the Irish Examiner claimed that the Irish-American vote “will be vital” in the election.  But the thing is, there is no ‘Irish vote’.  Irish Americans are Democrats and Republicans, Catholics and Protestants, and there are no galvanizing issues around which a significant number of them rally. 

You don’t find breakdowns of voting on the basis of ethnicity, except for the Latino vote.  When people suggest x% of Irish-Americans voted a certain way, you’ll likely find they simply take the percentage of Catholics that voted a certain way and call that the Irish vote. 

But that is spurious.  More than half of Irish America is Protestant.  And the Irish are but one segment of the Catholic vote.  Latinos now make up the largest segment of that vote, which also includes Italians, French and Poles.  So you can’t simply take the Catholic vote and suggest that it is Irish.  Nor can you assume that all Irish-Catholics vote the same way. 

Catholic voters are of interest in the US because they are swing voters – they have been on the winning side of presidential elections since 1972.  Hillary Clinton got the majority of the Catholic vote in the Democratic primaries and she didn’t win the nomination.  So if you believe there is an Irish vote and Hillary Clinton got it, wouldn’t that mean that Obama won despite the Irish vote? 

The fact is, demographics and political power have changed in America.  Rahm Emanuel was just inaugurated as the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, a city long led by the Daleys.  When Thomas Menino became the Mayor of Boston back in 1993, he was the first non-Irish mayor in about 60 years. Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan are all, sadly, no longer with us. 

People who vote can be many things:  male/female, Catholic/Protestant, blue collar worker/college-educated, urban/rural, etc. The proverbial white guy in rural Pennsylvania (a place I know something about as I come from there) will make up his mind about Obama (if he hasn’t already) because of the economy, Social Security, Medicare, guns, abortion, education, Afghanistan, and several other factors. You could count on one hand the number of people who would vote for the President on the basis of his stopping in Ireland for less than 24 hours. 

I think it’s great that the President is visiting for the simple reason that there is no surer way for him to have a positive feeling about Ireland than to visit himself.  We see it every year with the impact Ireland has on our George J. Mitchell Scholars.  And I recall when President Clinton rang Senator Kennedy from Ireland in 1995 to say his days there were the best of his presidency to date.  But I won’t pedal nonsense about an Irish vote that doesn’t exist.  The visit simply is what it is.  The President has already visited ten European countries.  It would be a disappointment if he didn’t visit Ireland.   It just gets silly to suggest he’s going to all these countries for votes when most Americans won’t even register that he’s been there.  Do any Irish people vote for the Irish Prime Minister because he’s visited the US?

Some Irish will also go along with the fiction of the power of the Irish vote because, as one journalist once said to me, ‘it’s what we want to believe about ourselves.’ It reminds  me of something said by the haughty JohnnyPateenMike in Martin McDonagh’s play, The Cripple of Inishmaan: “Ireland mustn't be such a bad place so, if the Yanks want to come to Ireland to do their filming. " 

The only concern I have is that while some spin this trip to be more than it is, that only feeds into a sort of complacency about the real work that needs to be done to sustain the relationship for future generations.  As the American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman would say, it’s time to sell the shadow for the substance.


Trina Vargo is the president of the US-Ireland Alliance