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Inside Story: Irish America at a crossroads

 by Niall Stanage

Sunday Business Post*  15 March 2014


Irish America is in flux. For proof you only have to look at two St Patrick's Day parades in one city: New York. Tomorrow, the world's biggest St Patrick's Day Parade will take place along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. It will be traditionalist to the core, with pipe bands, strong contingents of uniformed police officers and firemen and - at the organisers' decades-long insistence - no gay participants marching as a group.

Earlier this month, an alternative parade, St Pat's For All, took place in the borough of Queens. Among its high-profile guests was the drag artist Panti Bliss, aka Rory O'Neill. Its two grand marshals were Tom Duane, for many years the only openly gay member of the New York State Senate, and Terry McGovern, the founder of an organisation that helps low-income people living with HIV/Aids.

The organisers of the Queens parade consider 'inclusion their watchword. Over the years, various groups from other communities, including African-Americans, Latinos and Muslims have joined the celebrations.

On one level, the traditionalists seem to still have a huge upper hand - the St Pat's For All parade draws only a tiny fraction of the 500,000 crowd that will flock to Fifth Avenue. But a closer look reveals a different picture; it is one in which the political winds are at the back of the more progressive groups. Irish identity itself is also shifting as younger generations bump up against the old, established order.

New York City's recently elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, marched in the St Pat's for All parade this year, but made clear early on that he would boycott the Manhattan event. 'I simply disagree with the organisers of that parade in their exclusion of some individuals in this city, he said in early February.

De Blasio's decision shunted the Manhattan parade a step closer to toxicity, at least among New York politicians. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, marched in both parades while the mayor before that, Rudy Giuliani, marched only in Manhattan. This year, three members of the US Congress joined de Blasio in Queens.

The Manhattan parade, and the traditionalism it represents, also antagonises younger and more liberal immigrants from Ireland. Colin Broderick, a novelist and playwright originally from Co Tyrone, has not attended the Manhattan parade in many years.

'My general feeling is anger. It makes me angry and it embarrasses me a little bit because of the notion of being exclusionary here in America. For me, it's a throwback to some kind of antiquated thinking, he says.

'My daughter is five years old. I would love to bring her to the parade, and I won't bring her because I don't want her to say later, Why did you go there when those other people were excluded?'

Brendan Fay is one of the founders and organisers of the St Pat's For All parade. 'I do think that the model put forth, and the image conveyed, from the Fifth Avenue parade in no way reflects contemporary Ireland, he says. 'The issue of exclusion actually undermines the perception of Ireland.

The battle over the Manhattan parade has been going on since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the world has changed.

When Fay launched the Queens parade a decade and a half ago, and declared his intention of honouring Hillary Clinton, he recalls posters peppering the area warning that 'Hillary and the Sodomites are coming.

He still gets his share of hate mail, but the atmosphere in the broader community is vastly different. Local businesses, for example, have come to embrace the parade.

'We are not done yet and we have a way to go, Fay says. 'But as for Fifth Avenue, there was a time when women could not march. Most people are baffled that this is an ongoing, unresolved issue.

The gay debate is only one detail in the big and sometimes confusing canvas of Irish America. The term itself is problematic. Many Irish Americans are fully absorbed into the American mainstream, others are stauncher holdouts against assimilation. Meanwhile, the new waves of arrivals often have entirely different views and values to their predecessors.

Amid all the churning, some of the old certainties have come asunder. To listen to some Irish and Irish American commentators, the 'Irish vote still packs a punch, yet evidence to support that assertion is virtually non-existent on the ground.

No major polling organisation tries to determine the opinions of Irish American voters, despite the fact that pollsters do so for many other demographic groups. The last Irish-American mayor of New York City was Robert Wagner Jr, who left office in 1965.

During the 1970s and '80s, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, House of Representatives Speaker Tip O'Neill and New York State Governor Hugh Carey were referred to as the 'four horsemen of Irish America. All were major political figures. All are now dead.

The St Patrick's parade controversies aside, the most highly publicised Irish issue of recent weeks has been Liam Neeson sticking up for the predominantly Irish horse carriage industry in and around New York's Central Park, which has come under fire from animal rights activists. That's all well and good, but it's hardly the stuff of epic political drama.

Christine Quinn, New York's most prominent Irish-American politician, ran against de Blasio and others for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor last year. She was the early front runner and had a host of advantages, including endorsements from all three major New York newspapers. She lost heavily, coming in third.

'If Christine Quinn had run purely as an Irish person, would that have been sufficient? No, said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic political consultant in New York, to The Sunday Business Post. 'There are not enough Irish people left in New York to elect anybody.

In Sheinkopf's telling, the Irish have long since moved from the city to the suburbs, where their identity is now submerged into the wider category of 'white ethnics rather than Irish people per se.

Referring to elections in one large suburban area just outside New York City, he says: 'If you are running in Nassau County and happen to be an Irish Catholic, that's a great thing. If you are running and you happen to be Italian, that's also a great thing. It's not just about Irish'.

The same picture is, if anything, even more pronounced on the national scene, as even some who are pillars of the Irish American community will attest.

'Irish America is as divided as America itself, says Kieran McLoughlin, the president and chief executive of the Worldwide Irish Funds. 'You have Irish American Democrats and Irish American Republicans, and this reflects the fact that Irish Americans have become more integrated into mainstream American society.

'It means that there is less of a consolidated Irish caucus, as it were, on [Capitol] Hill, but there are very significant Irish American players, like Samantha Power or Paul Ryan, who is on the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Even those claims are open to debate, however. Power, President Barack Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, was born in Castleknock in Dublin and has spoken of her roots many times. But she has not always sounded enthusiastic about playing the Irish card in a political sense. 

During Obama's first run for the presidency, she served as one of his advisers. A Sunday Business Post account of an interview with her at that time stated: 'When asked about Obama's relationship with the Irish, Power said that Obama did not want to peel off groups - such as the Irish and women - and start pandering to them.

Others have an even sharper view of the decline in Irish influence.

'Ireland is largely off the political agenda here, says Trina Vargo, the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance. 'Some of that is to be expected: Northern Ireland does not attract our attention and Ireland, despite its difficulties, is not a poor country. But what is disappointing to me is that the [Obama] administration is not doing even basic maintenance of the relationship.

In Obama's latest budget proposal, there is no money allotted to the George Mitchell Scholarship Program, which is run by Vargo's organisation and brings up to 12 American students to Irish universities for one year of postgraduate study.

For a decade, American governments had provided roughly $500,000 of the programme's $600,000 annual cash budget. The elimination of that money contrasts with the $10 million allotted to a new Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative, the $20 million for the Young African Leaders Initiative or even the retention of $350,000 in funding for the Timor Leste Scholarship Program. It is a sobering reminder of Ireland's place on the totem pole.

Vargo also notes, as have many others in Irish America, that as of last week the Obama administration had not nominated a new ambassador to Ireland. The previous incumbent, Dan Rooney, left in December 2012. The post may be largely ceremonial - no one believes the embassy is in disarray simply because there is no ambassador -but the sheer length of the delay is another troubling sign.

'It sends a signal to Ireland, Vargo says. 'I can't figure out why they haven't named someone. Maybe this is at the bottom of some pile somewhere.

As the peace process in the North bedded down, many politically-minded Irish American activists turned their attention to immigration reform, often holding out the prospect of some kind of special deal for Irish illegal immigrants.

Even the most generous estimates of the total illegal immigrant Irish population in the United States, around 50,000, are dwarfed by the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, which is usually said to be somewhere north of ten million.

Vargo was one of those arguing that a special measure for Irish illegal immigrants was never a realistic possibility. 'I said there wouldn't be a special deal because no politician was going to annoy ten million Latinos to put 10,000 Irish at the front of the line, she says.

Kelly Fincham, a former executive director of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, is now a professor of journalism at Hofstra University. She insists that the Irish immigration reform effort, which is still ongoing, was 'a successful venture, in part because it helped move some Irish-American politicians such as Congressman Peter King toward a less hostile position.

The Taoiseach raised immigration reform with Congressional leaders and president Obama during his meetings with them last Friday. Irish hopes are now tied to the idea of a comprehensive deal that would give some form of legal status to the vast majority of illegal immigrants, irrespective of their country of origin.

Even if Irish political power has been on the wane for decades, however, its cultural flame burns brightly. In that sphere, the old-style Quiet Man imagery has given way to contemporary talents such as novelist Colum McCann and playwrights Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh, as well as a number of rising stars.

People in the creative community assert that art presents an opportunity for mainstream American audiences, as well as Irish and Irish American people, to deepen their engagement with Ireland.

'Our mission is to project a dynamic image of an evolving Ireland and an evolving Irish America for the 21st century, says Aidan Connolly, the executive director of the Irish Arts Centre in New York.

Asked whether drawing in audiences who have no personal ancestral connection to Ireland is part of that project, he replies: 'It's actually central to the mission. It is at the core. In our case, people might be coming to us thinking I've come to understand that Ireland is very good at theatre - I'm interested', as opposed to, I'm interested in some generalised, notional Irishness'.

Kieran McLoughlin agrees that more daring or contemporary expressions of Irishness are more likely to hook a younger generation.

Those people 'are educated, they're informed, they want a link to modern Ireland. They are not interested in some sentimental faux-Ireland with donkeys and carts. It's not a Darby O'Gill representation of Ireland in the arts - it's U2 and Declan O'Rourke, it's Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson as much as it is Lady Gregory, he says.

Aidan Connolly, though, cautions that Ireland's present high standing in the arts is not guaranteed in perpetuity. 'There is no law that says the reputation has to endure to another 100 years if we don't invest in it, he says.

One difficulty for proponents of investment in the arts is that the resultant economic benefits can be hard to quantify. That problem does not afflict the business world, where the ties between Ireland and the US can be measured with a decent level of precision.

According to the most recent statistics provided by the US Department of Commerce, American exports to Ireland were valued at more than $7 billion in 2011 and total US direct investment was around $190 billion. The report also noted that 'Irish investment in the US totalled over $30 billion at the end of 2010, with almost a hundred thousand Americans employed by Irish firms.

The notion of a dynamic transatlantic business relationship has been buttressed by Ireland's status as the European HQ of choice for American tech giants. But it is also a by-product of well-established Irish success stories like construction giant CRH, as well as recent high-profile moves such as News Corp's €18 million purchase of Storyful, the social news agency founded by former RTE journalist Mark Little.

Whether those successes prove that Irishness provides any leg-up into the American business world is more debatable.

Sean O'Sullivan, the US-born, Cork-based entrepreneur who was one of the dragons on RTE's Dragons' Den, says: 'Is there an advantage? I'd say that it is looked upon in a positive fashion. I would hate to be a French company, but on the other hand, I wouldn't hesitate to be a German company.

'German businesses can do business anywhere around the world because there is this cultural pride in their dedication to quality. Does Ireland have that same reputation? I don't think it has - yet - in terms of high-tech leadership. But it doesn't hurt in the slightest to be from Ireland. People have a fondness for it.

The pattern of Irishness helping at the margins but not in any more substantive way is borne out by others too.

'In my experience, I haven't seen any doors shut or open, says Cian Cotter, a Cork-born principal with New York-based venture capital firm Insight Venture Partners. 'We speak the same language, so I guess you don't have a language barrier. And in my world, of technology investing, Ireland is seen as a very business-friendly place. But overall, it's like anywhere: If you do your job well, you're okay.

Kieran McLoughlin, however, cites Ireland's austerity measures as a key factor in contributing to what he considers a 'healthy relationship between Ireland and the United States. 'There is a great sense of appreciation and admiration for how Ireland is coming out of the worst economic crisis in its independent life, he says.

The shifting and hard-to-define nature of the transatlantic relationship inevitably leads to disagreements about its robustness. Aidan Connolly broadly shares McLoughlin's qualified optimism. 

'Perhaps one would argue that at a certain level the need to bind oneself through ethnicity has diminished at some level, he says. 'But I often hear the argument that Irish America is on the wane. I wouldn't say that. It's just changing, becoming more outward looking and more diverse.

Trina Vargo is not so sure. 'Is there a critical mass of people in this country who will care about this relationship for years to come? If I had to answer that question today, I'd say there isn't.



*printed here with the permission of the Sunday Business Post