The history and politics behind US presidents embracing their Irish roots

Joe Biden with Micheál Martin, Tánaiste of Ireland, in County Louth; President John F Kennedy meeting the mayor of Limerick on his visit to Ireland in 1963. Credit: AP

If you want to understand why so many American presidents seem so keen to focus on their Irish roots, one statistic should help: there are forty-five million Americans who claim Irish ancestry.

And, albeit that they come from different backgrounds and traditions, that is a potentially huge voting bloc.

Everyone knows about John F. Kennedy, of course, all four of whose grandparents were the children of Irish immigrants from Wexford, Limerick and Cavan respectively. But there have been many other American presidents with Irish links, from Ulysses S. Grant to Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whose great-grandparents hailed from County Tipperary.

Bill Clinton and Gerry Adams in 1995

But in terms of international politics, it was the Clinton presidency that changed everything.

When I arrived in Belfast as ITV’s Ireland Correspondent in the summer of 1993, the Troubles – which had run for more than two decades by then – looked as if they would go on forever, a steady drumbeat of death, atrocity and counter-atrocity that would occasionally explode onto the front pages with some terrible mass murder. It was a tragic and deeply depressing situation.

Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that the IRA had been secretly talking to the British government and we journalists all started to wonder if peace might be a possibility. There was a great deal of debate about whether the IRA were merely "playing" us for political and press advantage, but it gradually seemed plausible that they meant what they said.

There were many problems, of course, not least the families and communities who had born the brunt of their attacks. But in practical political terms, a huge issue was the fact that their rank and file simply did not trust the British government.

This is where the Clinton presidency played a huge part. Effectively, they came to act as a guarantor for the process. A decision to award Gerry Adams an early visa to visit the US, against the advice of Unionists and the British government, was one key part of that. But the real prize was Clinton’s visit to Belfast in 1995, little more than a year after the IRA had called its ceasefire.

A Barack Obama sign in the town of Moneygall, Ireland Credit: AP

The sight of the presidential limo driving through the heart of West Belfast took all of our breath away. And the same was true of pretty much all the political developments that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. In truth, few things in the past three decades have given so much cause for hope in humanity.

Since then, more American presidents – all of them, in fact, from George Bush to Obama and Trump – have come to proclaim their Irish heritage and make sure that the peace process is secure. So it is perhaps natural that there has been a law of diminishing returns. Joe Biden’s visit to Belfast was short and limited in impact. Some put that down to his reputation for being much more pro-Irish than British. But maybe that doesn’t matter, because perhaps it is just true that people have got used to peace. And we should all be grateful for that.

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