Ben Lowry: Unionism could make great headway lobbying in the United States

An abject failure of modern British politics is the inability of unionism to get its case across in America.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 2nd October 2021, 1:57 pm
Updated Monday, 4th October 2021, 3:36 pm
Unionist lobbyists could lobby members of the US Congress, above
Unionist lobbyists could lobby members of the US Congress, above

The influence of the Scots Irish (ie Ulster Protestants) in the United States has been immense for most of its history.

Part of the modern failure is because the Scots Irish blended so effortlessly into the dominant culture that they often became Americans, without a prefix, and their impact waned, whereas the much later Catholic Irish and Italians felt somewhat on the outside for the better part of a century (from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s) and retained their European identity.

Latterly this has changed markedly and now people of Catholic Irish descent are prominent everywhere, from the US Supreme Court to both the Biden and Trump presidencies.

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There is already a Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC but it must be neutral between unionists and nationalists. Unionist lobbyists would not be so constrained

In living memory there was rarely more than one Catholic at any one time on America’s most powerful court of nine judges. Now they form a majority of the justices.

The phrase Scots Irish was for a long time partly used as a code for saying non Catholic Irish.

While the Ulster influence was large in the early United States, and massively so proportionate to the small population of Ulster itself, it was still under 20% of the population. The influence of German and English Protestants was much greater.

You see this in early Belfast News Letters from the mid 1700s, with ads for some boats sailing from Ulster to America, but reports of far larger numbers of departures from England and northern Europe (see link below about early News Letters).

But the millions of English and Germans were so dominant that they lost most of their European identity and became mainstream Americans. To a significant extent the Scots Irish did too.

Even so, unionist influence in shaping Washington’s view of Northern Ireland ought to be easily as great as that of (pro nationalist) Irish America.

In 2004 I was on a trip to America with a number of journalists from both sides of the Irish border, only two of us from a northern Protestant background. We travelled to Kentucky and met Senator Mitch McConnell, already then one of the most powerful Republican Party politicians in the land (and even more so now, the party’s leader in the US Senate, as he approaches his 80th birthday). He asked us all where we were from, before telling us: “I’m from Banbridge.”

Not only do many of these politicians have such Scots Irish roots, American conservatives generally have seen Britain as a trusted ally of the US for more than a century.

On the other hand, Eire (as it then was) was neutral in the war against Hitler, something that was remembered in the American corridors of power after 1945.

Few such US leaders think about Ireland in that way now, but they are aware that the UK has fought on the same side as America in recent conflicts such as the 1991 Gulf War.

Even Joe Biden, who unionists fear is anti British, strongly backed the UK in the 1982 Falklands War (when an anglophobic strain in Washington was unsympathetic to our the war against Argentina).

The UK and US often side together in the UN security council.

This week the ex Ulster Unionist leader and submarine commander Steve Aiken wrote about the Aukus defence deal between Britain, America and Australia, and how it reflected a US understanding of the UK as a key security partner (see link below).

Yet for all this shared history, unionist influence is negligible compared to Irish America.

Not only have US congressional politicians scolded and threatened London over Brexit and any possible UK deviation from the Northern Ireland Protocol, they have — incredibly — scolded it on the legacy of the NI Troubles too.

A nation that has been phobic about terror post September 11 2001 is lecturing the UK for supposedly covering up its notably mild response to decades of IRA terrorism.

Part of the failure to combat a Sinn Fein version of our past is rooted in a British Foreign Office mindset, that has little sympathy for Ulster Unionism and little inclination to defend it abroad.

Part of the UK reticence in defending itself from American criticism of Brexit’s impact in Northern Ireland is rooted in its own paradoxical approach to the Irish Sea border (both retreating from it and defending it in court).

But much of the problem of unionist invisibility is due to the fact that there is a vast, well connected, strongly motivated Irish American caucus whereas unionism lacks the bandwidth to lobby in Washington.

Recently we ran a letter from the Ireland Israel Alliance on how the Republic is now one of the west’s most anti Israel nations (see link below)..

Why do we not have British diplomats and unionist politicians hammering this home to pro-Israel America at every opportunity?

If a wealthy benefactor was to sponsor even two well-informed, permanent unionist lobbyists, they could make great headway in DC.

One of the first things such lobbyists could do is make connections with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) lobby group and emphasise Irish hostility to Israel.

There is so much else that unionist lobbyists could work on, above all building bridges with influential American conservatives.

This is lobbying that the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington could never do, being neutral between nationalists and unionists.

Even that natural diplomat, Trevor Ringland, is restricted in his role as a part-time NI envoy to the US.

Unionist lobbyists could, and would have to, go much further.

• Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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