Is Donald Trump taking the Democrats’ line on Brexit and the Irish border? We might think so from the Financial Times. On Friday, the FT quoted Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, saying that the Trump administration, the State Department and the US Congress ‘would all be aligned in the desire to see the Good Friday Agreement preserved to see the lack of a border maintained’, and that no one wants ‘a border by accident’.
Does this mean that the Trump administration agrees with Joe Biden? No, it doesn’t. Biden, along with House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi and a gaggle of Democratic committee leaders, is siding with the EU.
‘We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,’ Biden tweeted on Wednesday. ‘Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.’
In response, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, said that ‘we trust the United Kingdom’. Standing next to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab for emphasis, he added, ‘I am confident they’ll get it right.’
Nothing there about borders hard, soft or with a chewy centre. Nothing about conditions for that long-heralded free-trade deal, either.
A senior State Department official confirmed the Trump administration’s position: ‘We support the UK in its efforts to leave the EU and, as Mulvaney said, we support the Good Friday Agreement. We can stand for both. This is a reiteration of our position.’
Joe Biden clearly didn’t write the statement on Brexit and borders himself. Left to what remains of his own devices, Biden often rambles like a drunk on a park bench. On the same day that his handlers composed that communique from the virtual Biden, when asked about employment opportunities for veterans, the real Biden had a hot-mike flashback to the Fifties: ‘if you were a quartermaster, you can sure in hell take care runnin’ a, you know, department store, uh, thing, you know, where, in the second floor of the ladies department or whatever, you know what I mean?’
Biden is not alone in directing his focus to a faraway country of which he knows nothing. Last week, Nancy Pelosi threatened that if the UK undermined the Good Friday Agreement, there would be ‘no chance’ of the House passing a US-UK free-trade deal. On the same day that Biden was ruminating on quartermasters in the ladies’ department, Boris Johnson received this same hard-border message in a letter from three senior Democratic Congressmen and one Republican, the IRA apologist turned Muslim-baiter Peter King.
All of this is what Biden, a fifth-generation Irish American, would call ‘malarkey’. The Good Friday Agreement is constructively vague about borders. The British and Irish governments agreed only to demilitarisation, and that there should be ‘close co-operation’ on cross-border economic development. It is the European Union threatening to create a hard border in Ireland. Biden, Pelosi and the Congressmen should address their threats not to London, but to Brussels. The real audience for the Democrats’ Brexit threats is, however, much closer to home – in places like Biden’s birthplace, Scranton, Pennsylvania.
There is no longer a cohesive ‘Irish vote’ in the US. The days are long gone in which Biden could have issued an order to Irish Americans like the one he recently tied issuing to African Americans: ‘If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.’ But there are still plenty of Irish Americans: one in ten Americans claim some degree of Irish ancestry. Many of them left the Democratic party for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since 2000, their votes seem to break like those of other white Catholics, for the Republican candidate.
The margin was narrow in the early 2000s (52-47 per cent for McCain over Obama in 2008), but it widened in 2012 (59-40 per cent for Romney over Obama) and then widened further in 2016, when Trump took 60 per cent to Clinton’s 37 per cent (which is close to the overall white vote, 58 per cent to 37 per cent).
After the 2016 elections, the Washington DC-based Irish journalist Colm Quinn examined these shifts in the Irish vote. He noted that the white Catholic vote was now ‘third only to two historically staunch GOP allies: Evangelical Christians and Mormons’. But he also found that counties with large Irish American populations didn’t always lean right, and that if they did, it wasn’t that far. The American Irish, Quinn surmises, are still a source of that vanishing species, the floating voter.
The 18 counties with the largest populations of census-identifying Irish Americans are all in the Northeast. In 2016, Clinton won in 10 of these counties, and Trump in eight. In three of her 10 counties, Clinton won by a margin of less than 10 per cent. In two of them, both in Pennsylvania, she won by less than 5 per cent: 48.5 to 47.7 per cent in Bucks County, and 49.79 to 46.34 per cent in Lackawanna County, capital Scranton.
Trump’s margins were even tighter. He won seven of his eight counties by a margin of less than 10 per cent, and four of them by less than 5 per cent. Three of his counties were in New York State and two in New Jersey, which are on nobody’s list of swing states this year. But New Hampshire, where Trump won in Rockingham County in 2016, could go either way.
As could Pennsylvania, which Trump flipped by the thinnest of margins in 2016. Since then, the Republicans have narrowed their registration gap in Pennsylvania by 150,000, much of it in districts that used to vote Democratic. Biden’s polling is now within the margin of error, and everyone knows that Trump has underperformed in the polls.
It’s not a hard border in Ireland that the Democrats are worried about. It’s their failing attempt to rebuild the Blue Wall closer to home.