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,'
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
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
Catholic voters are of interest in the U.S. 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 U.S.?
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.