John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


High Holy Season for the Irish

Posted on March 14, 2014
Kilbennan St. Benin's Church Window St. Patrick Detail 2010 09 16

St. Patrick

It’s the high holy season for the Irish in the Nation’s Capitol.

Last night, the American Ireland Fund recognized Joe Biden for his work on behalf of the Irish Peace Process and for being the highest-ranking Irish Catholic in the American government since John Kennedy captured the Presidency in 1960.

The Vice Presidential debates in 2012 highlighted how far the Irish have come in the political world, with Biden squaring off against Paul Ryan.

That debate had all the earmarks of a Thanksgiving dinner debate at Irish households all across the country, where the smarty-pants college student got into it with cranky old Uncle.

Ireland holds a special place in the hearts of the 40 million or so Americans who call themselves Irish.  And on St. Patrick’s Day, that number shoots up to about 200 million.

The American Ireland Fund dinner usually kicks off the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.   That is followed by the traditional Shamrock ritual between the Taoiseach and the President, the St. Patrick’s Day luncheon hosted by the Speaker of the House, the White House party and the shindig at the Ambassador’s residence.

Many of these rituals trace back to when Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan were President.  Some of them change.  George W. Bush had a brunch after the shamrocks were exchanged, and not a party.  The location of the ambassador’s party has changed because frankly, the crowd got out of hand, too big for its own good.

The special relationship between the Irish and the Americans has changed too.   The Irish don’t vote straight Democratic anywhere, and in fact, really haven’t since the Reagan days.   Irish Americans are the quintessential swing vote, which makes them outliers in either party.  More and more Irish Catholics call themselves Republican, but not enough to dominate the direction of the party.     African-Americans now make up the heart of the Democratic Party, and the tension between black America and Irish America sometimes rears its ugly head, especially when it comes to control of the machinery of the party.   Ask Bill Daley how he really feels about Valerie Jarrett and vice versa.

The Irish Peace Process used to dominate discussions during these High Holy Days, but those issues have been supplanted by the suddenly interesting debates surrounding the commercial relationship between Ireland and America.

Ireland is the gateway to the European Union, with a highly educated workforce, a good regulatory regime, very favorable tax laws and English speakers that make it very easy for American companies to do business there.

It is the highly favorable tax laws that have drawn some scrutiny from some members of the Senate and from the European Union.  But unlike the Cayman Islands or other British tax havens, Ireland doesn’t run a sham operation.  Businesses locate in Ireland not only because of the low taxes, but also because they can manufacture highly complex products.

Ireland is doing it the right way, and when Paul Ryan gains the Ways and Means gavel (if he wants it), he could learn a lot from the Irish about how to put together a pro-job creation tax code.

Things are not all rosy in the Emerald Isle.   They had a very tough time when the financial bubble hit America and Europe.  Frankly, they got screwed by the banking industry, which helped to inflate the bubble through easy credit.  When the balloon popped, it was the Irish people who were left holding the remnants of a broken economy.

Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael, rode the crisis to a massive political victory that nearly put his chief opponents, Fianna Fail, out of business forever.  With a strong steady hand, Kenny embarked on a tough austerity program that cut domestic spending to the bone but kept the corporate tax rate low.  You couldn’t pull off that feat in America, but the strategy helped the Irish to be the first European country to pay back the bailout money.  And that has helped Ireland restore its credit ratings to international bankers.

Biden in his speech last night reminded the audience that while the commercial story might be top of mind, the peace process is not in any way completed.  There is still ample tension between the Catholic minority and the Protestant majority, and those tensions break out during the marching season.

Extremists on both sides still like to stir up trouble, and a broken economy gives those extremists a deeper pool of folks to appeal to.

When the economy rebounds, the peace process improves.  So here’s to hoping the Irish economy in both the Republic and in the North starts improving rapidly.

St. Patrick’s Day is on a Monday this year, and Congress is out of session next week, which is why Washington is getting a jump on the holiday season.   I hope everybody enjoys their holiday weekend.  Éirinn go Brách.