With the clock ticking fast on the UK’s exit from the European Union, LSE’s Pádraig Manning explores the history of American-Irish relations, the impact of the Irish community in the United States on the Good Friday Agreement, and how a possible resurgence of the Irish bloc in America can influence the stalemate over the Irish backstop.


In August, US President Donald Trump declared that the United Kingdom and the United States will reach a ‘very big trade deal’ after the former’s departure from the European Union. Vice President Mike Pence recently reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to a comprehensive post-Brexit trade deal during his visit to England, assuring UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that ‘when you’re ready we’ll be ready’.

However, speaking at the LSE earlier this year, Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi warned that a UK-US trade deal would be ‘a non-starter’ if Brexit compromised the Good Friday Agreement. Speaker Pelosi’s concerns are certainly justified. While the backstop mechanism will ensure the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland, Johnson has repeatedly insisted on its removal from the Withdrawal Agreement. In the event of a no deal Brexit, border infrastructure or personnel may become renewed targets for dissident republican paramilitaries. Moreover, increased calls for a border poll could give rise to a growth in loyalist paramilitary recruitment and activity. As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has explained, a disorderly departure threatens to ‘drive a wedge’ between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Although Ireland and its border with the UK have featured prominently in Brexit discourse, the nation’s implications for a future UK-US trade deal have remained overlooked in Britain. Writing in The Telegraph, historian Andrew Roberts dismissed the Speaker’s statement as no more than a ‘dog whistle blast to her Irish-American voters’. However, Roberts overlooks the longstanding tradition of Irish-American political activity and the existence of a bipartisan bloc in Washington committed to the preservation of peace in Ireland.

Capitol Hill’s Friends of Ireland Caucus, founded in 1981, is currently headed by Massachusetts Democratic Representative Richard Neal, who also chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. Significantly, this committee, which has jurisdiction over tariffs, holds the power to approve or block any future trade agreement between the UK and the US. Among this caucus’s members are prominent Senators including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York), Chris Murphy (Connecticut), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tim Kaine (Virginia), and Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), along with Representatives Peter T. King of the GOP and Democrat Brendan Boyle who, this year, introduced in Congress a resolution opposing a hard border in Ireland. Under the Clinton administration in the 1990s, organised Irish-America, including sitting members of Congress like King and Neal, played an active role in shaping the Good Friday Agreement and are thus unlikely to welcome a Brexit which risks undermining its provisions.

Any trade deal will need the sign-off of Congress and, as Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington Daniel Mulhall reported in June, there is widespread anxiety about the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. In late-July, to protect the Good Friday Agreement, a bipartisan committee including five former US ambassadors, two former state governors, and a number of foreign policy experts, penned a letter to Julian Smith, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, expressing concern at the Prime Minister’s recent rhetoric.

It warned ,‘We view the belief that alternative arrangements can easily solve the problem of the Irish border with a healthy scepticism, as do many experts’.

Ireland is not the only obstacle to a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. Getting a trade deal through Congress was and is challenging even in the best of times. US Ambassador Woody Johnson’s statement that the UK’s ‘entire economy … would be on the table’ was met with widespread opposition in Britain, suggesting that negotiating a trade deal will by no means be an effortless process. In 2016 President Obama warned that a UK-US trade deal could take up to ten years to negotiate. Moreover, the US’s ongoing economic conflict with China and the deterioration of the pound will further complicate the negotiating picture. The question of the Irish border will merely add another potential stumbling block to the conclusion of a trade deal.

Ireland complicating Anglo-American cooperation would not be without precedent. A hundred years ago, Irish-America made a noteworthy contribution to the Senate’s non-ratification of the Versailles Treaty which in effect disrupted relations between the UK and US in the post-war years. Frustrated at Woodrow Wilson’s failure to grant a hearing to the nascent Irish Republic at the Paris Peace Conference, hard-line Irish-American leaders like the exiled Fenian John Devoy and New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel F. Cohalan joined the GOP in its campaign against the President and his bid for the League of Nations.

At the time, there were vastly more Irish-Americans than there were people in Ireland itself, a demographic anomaly which persists today. In 1900 alone, nearly five million Americans were Irish-born or of Irish-born parents. Moreover, it was estimated that third and fourth generation Irish-Americans increased the total number of Irish-Americans to approximately twenty million. Throughout the nineteenth century, America’s Irish community developed a formidable political machine, particularly within the Democratic Party, which played a pivotal role in the Treaty fight in 1919-1920.

As early as February 1919, the House passed a resolution expressing its ‘earnest hope’ that delegates of Dáil Éireann would be granted a hearing at the Peace Conference. State legislatures across America followed by passing their own resolutions in support of Irish self-determination. George Creel, head of Wilson’s wartime Committee on Public Information, warned the President that ‘Ireland … is one of the most important questions with which you will have to deal … the Irish in America … mean to … embarrass our relations with Great Britain.

The Third Irish Race Convention gathered in Philadelphia in February and in April dispatched the American Commission on Irish Independence (ACII), a three-person delegation (comprising Frank P. Walsh, Edward F. Dunne, and Michael J. Ryan) to Paris. The aim was to secure a hearing for Dáil President Éamon de Valera, Minister for Home Affairs Arthur Griffith, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Count George Noble Plunkett. The trio joined Sinn Féin’s own envoys in Paris, Seán T. O’Kelly and George Gavan Duffy, who had (until then) been ‘studiously ignored’ by world leaders gathered in the city.

The ACII’s contacts within Wilson’s delegation soon gave Ireland an influence disproportionate to its size. The President afforded its head, Frank P. Walsh, an interview no more than a week after his arrival. Through Colonel Edward M. House (Wilson’s advisor) arrangements were made for the ACII to meet with UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George. However, the appointment fell through after the three Irish-Americans offended the Prime Minister with ‘scandalous speeches’ during a visit to Ireland in May.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Idaho’s Republican Senator William E. Borah, leader of the anti-League ‘irreconcilables’, proposed a resolution requesting that the de Valera party be heard before the Peace Conference, which was passed almost unanimously by the Senate in early-June. At this stage, an embarrassed Wilson was eager to distance himself from the Irish-Americans owing to their behaviour in Ireland. The ACII was told that it was now ‘useless to make any further effort’ on the Dáil’s behalf. Accordingly, Wilson simply forwarded Borah’s resolution to French Premier Georges Clemenceau who, as President of the Peace Conference, concluded that granting Sinn Féin a hearing would ‘exceed the limits of our task’.

The ACII returned to the United States disappointed but defiant, with the republican Friends of Irish Freedom (FOIF) group organising to work closely with key anti-League Senators. Borah and Cohalan developed a close relationship and in August the two collaborated to have over one hundred Irish-Americans heard before the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Their testimonies included scathing critiques of the League Covenant on both Irish and American grounds. Instead of making efforts to induce Wilson to support the Irish cause, Cohalan and his associates worked tirelessly to undermine the President’s peace-making project.

Throughout 1919, FOIF issued 700,000 anti-Treaty pamphlets and 100,000 pamphlets titled ‘America First’. Their efforts did not go unnoticed by British policymakers, with the War Cabinet expressing concern that Irish-America’s anti-League campaign of ‘heavily paid advertising and free publicity’ had infiltrated newspapers of all sizes across America. In October, every newspaper opposing the League of Nations reportedly made use of the Irish Question. Americans likewise stressed the importance of Irish-American opinion. Wilson’s Secretary Joseph P. Tumulty told the President that Irish support for the League ‘is really more important than I can tell you’, while Democratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh stated that ‘the vote on this Treaty may depend largely on the possession of the Irish vote’.

The Irish Question permeated debates in the Senate and the size and political potency of Irish-America ensured that neither Democrats nor Republicans could altogether ignore the subject when casting votes on the Versailles Treaty.

A hundred years on, Irish-America is by no means the political bloc that it was in 1919. In recent decades, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Irish has declined significantly. In fact, US-Ireland Alliance founder and President Trina Vargo’s latest book references to the ‘non-existent Irish American vote and [its] diminishing political influence’. However, recent developments suggest that bipartisan ‘Irish interests’ still exist in the United States. Although FOIF-like agitation would be impossible today, the commitment of key members of Congress to the Good Friday Agreement could well serve to complicate the conclusion of a UK-US trade deal post-Brexit. Once again, London may have to contend with an organised Irish-American lobby in Washington.


Pádraig Manning holds a BA in History and Political Science from University College Cork and recently completed the MSc Theory and History of International Relations programme at the LSE. His research interests include diaspora politics, the interwar period, and Irish foreign policy.