America's 51st State

The Irish are conflicted. We are obsessed by the American election -- in which we can't vote, and of which the outcome will have no legal bearing on us. Yet at the same time, we are turned off by an upcoming European Union referendum, the Lisbon Treaty, where Ireland will have the pivotal vote, and of which the result will affect everything from immigration to taxation. How can we explain this derogation of political responsibility? Why are we so seduced by a foreign country -- the US -- while ambivalent towards our own masters -- the EU?

The answer is that Ireland is a hybrid with one foot in America, the other in Europe. Turn on the TV or radio and you will be greeted by constant updates, bulletins and gab fests on everything from Michelle Obama's hair, to Hillary Clinton's tears, and John Mc Cain's mood swings. US foreign policy is hotly debated in taxis and pubs; even the bloke who refereed my over 35s soccer match at the weekend delivered a half-time analysis of Obama's failings.

Despite successive governments telling us that we are European, we actually feel American. When we go to the US, we are at home. There is nothing alien about an Irishman in America. On the other hand, in Brussels -- our political capital -- we feel awkward and foreign. This is because Ireland is the world's only "Ameropean Nation" -- half European, half American -- and Ireland's game is taking the best of the US and the best of Europe.

This constant juggling has had an impact on our political system, our expectations, and our national philosophy. This Ameropean geo-political stance is most evident in debates before elections. Irish politicians and commentators seem to believe that Ireland can deliver the tax system of Texas and still have the social welfare system of Sweden. Our discussions center on the utopia of lower taxes and better health, education and social security services.

The roots of this dichotomy are old and hark back to the fact that over the past 30 years, Ireland has positioned itself politically at the heart of Europe, but economically we have moved away from the European model and become the 51st state of the United States.

This political move means that our politicians adopt the language and posturing of the European left-of-centre consensus, with its ultimate promise of a strong state providing a functioning safety net. This stance is in direct contrast to the realities of being part of the US economic space. We have adopted American policy on taxation, investment, trade and employment law, as well as business attitudes.

Ireland benefits when Europe is weak and America strong, rather than the other way around. Ireland looks very appealing for American investors when the dollar is buoyant. In the same way that Ireland benefits from a strong American economy relative to Europe, American global hegemony has done wonders for Ireland. Since the end of the Cold War, the US's grand strategy has been to maintain its overwhelming military, political and economic pre-eminence. For that, the Irish should be thankful -- not because the strategy has been remotely designed with Ireland's interests in mind, but because, as a by-product of US dominance, we have flourished economically, intellectually, politically and socially.

The system that the US has fostered has led to enormous improvements in the standard of living for most of Europe. Politically, Ireland has been able to express itself in Europe, feeling like an equal at the top table for the first time ever. Would this have been possible in an EU dominated by the military aspirations of France, Britain, or Germany? Somehow I doubt it.

The Irish benefit much more from this Pax-Americana than the Americans. For such a small country, it is the ultimate free lunch: we get peace without humiliation, for the first time in history. In contrast, the medium-sized old powers have been made to dine on humble pie -- and this, in my opinion, is no bad thing.

The Irish interest in US politics derives from the fact that we are the 51st State. Our ancestors were part of building America, and now American investment is returning home, propelling Ireland to the top of the European wealth league. After two hundred years, things are finally where they should be.

David McWilliams is the author of The Pope's Children (John Wiley & Sons), available now.