Biden, Brexit, and the Invisible Border

By: Méadhbh McIvor

January 12, 2021

Responding to: Rethinking U.S. Policy on International Religious Freedom

Biden, Brexit, and the Invisible Border

On November 7, 2020, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin released a statement framing Joe Biden’s electoral victory as an Irish achievement:

"On behalf of the government and the people of Ireland, I offer warmest congratulations to Joe Biden on his election as the 46th President of the United States. Ireland takes pride in Joe Biden’s election, just as we are proud of all the generations of Irish women and Irish men and their ancestors whose toil and genius have enriched the diversity that powers America."

If Ireland was quick to claim Biden as one of its own, the president-elect, for his part, was happy to be claimed. In the week following the election, Irish social media was awash with a video clip in which a British journalist can be heard asking the former vice president for “a quick word for the BBC.” “The BBC?” Biden repeats, eyebrows raised. “I’m Irish!” 

Of course, Biden isn’t just Irish; he’s Irish Catholic. And this, I want to suggest, matters. If laws protecting religious freedom are designed, in theory at least, to prevent sectarian strife, Biden’s own ethno-religious identity may prove critical to his administration’s approach to religious liberty abroad—including on the island of Ireland. 

Of course, Biden isn’t just Irish; he’s Irish Catholic. And this, I want to suggest, matters.

As the historian Kerby A. Miller has shown, Irish Catholic emigrants—unlike their Protestant peers—have traditionally framed emigration as “tantamount to involuntary exile” rather than the pursuit of opportunity abroad. The result has been an enduring (and sometimes militant) nationalism in hyphenated Irish communities throughout the world. This is particularly true of Irish-Americans, many of whom—Biden among them—are descended from the estimated one million Irish who fled famine, disease, and British indifference during the Great Hunger (1845–1849). For these involuntary exiles, the collective trauma of living wakes, coffin ships, and families left behind is offset by the embrace of Irish culture. 

While the enthusiasm of such “Plastic Paddies” has occasionally yielded unwelcome results—not least when U.S. dollars are funneled to sectarian organizations such as the Irish Northern Aid Committee, whose 1970s fundraising materials boasted that they were “the only organization in America that supports the Provisional IRA”—Ireland has generally benefitted from Irish-Americans’ commitment to their roots. Indeed, with almost 10% of the U.S. population claiming Irish descent, support for Ireland in general and the peace process in particular is bipartisan. This was so even during the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump, who, in March of last year, fulfilled his promise to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. (The post is once again empty: Mick Mulvaney resigned in the wake of last week’s Trump-incited insurrection.) 

Yet Trump was also vocal in his support of a policy that risked Ireland’s hard-won peace, prosperity, and security: the departure of its nearest neighbor, the United Kingdom, from the European Union. Trump repeatedly championed Brexit despite the fact that, by “hardening” the otherwise invisible land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom), it threatened to reignite sectarian tensions in the region. 

Trump repeatedly championed Brexit despite the fact that...it threatened to reignite sectarian tensions in the region.

The Troubles—the 30-year conflict between Northern Ireland’s (predominately Catholic) nationalist and (predominately Protestant) unionist communities—were formally ended by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement. These accords assume E.U. membership on the part of both Ireland and the United Kingdom. With the United Kingdom leaving the E.U. Customs Union, some border communities feared that physical customs checkpoints would (once again) become a target for paramilitary activity. These fears were heightened when the British government, playing hardball in negotiations with the European Union, declared its willingness to break international law by setting aside previously agreed special arrangements for Northern Ireland, thus risking the return of a hard border. 

Admittedly, few in Ireland would discuss the Troubles in terms of religious freedom. (Though ubiquitous in the United States, the language of religious liberty simply doesn’t have the same purchase this side of the Atlantic.) But as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has argued, this kind of sectarian violence is exactly what proponents of international religious freedom initiatives intend them to counter. After all, it was the state’s heavy-handed response to demonstrations calling for civil rights for Irish Catholics (who, as a minority community, faced discrimination in terms of housing allocation, policing, and gerrymandered electoral boundaries) that led to the outbreak of violence in the late 1960s. More religious freedom, the argument goes, would equal more peace. 

Hurd’s work (and that of others) shows that such policies can have unintended consequences. For one thing, the “religious” elements of a conflict are usually impossible to separate out from political, economic, and cultural concerns. Further, by highlighting difference rather than similarity, peacebuilding initiatives framed in terms of protecting religious minorities may well exacerbate the tensions they are meant to prevent. When these initiatives involve outsiders, they’re all the more likely to backfire.

The 'religious' elements of a conflict are usually impossible to separate out from political, economic, and cultural concerns.

In the Irish case, however, U.S. support of the peace process has been welcome. And although U.S. interest in Ireland has waned since the Clinton years, Brexit has put it back on the agenda. As the journalist Dan Haverty argued in the lead-up to November’s election, the candidates’ positions on Brexit may well have been “on the ballot” for Irish-American voters: Where Trump (a close ally of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson) claimed a post-Brexit U.K.-U.S. trade deal would be “fantastic,” Biden made clear that any such deal was contingent upon avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.

One month after Biden’s victory, Britain dropped its controversial plan to disapply the Northern Ireland protocols. While this change was primarily a matter of E.U.-U.K. negotiation, Biden’s cajoling couldn’t have hurt. 

As a U.K.-based Irishwoman who has been shocked by the ignorance of and condescension towards Ireland demonstrated by British politicians in the wake of the Brexit vote—including, somewhat incredibly, former Brexit Minister David Davis’ apparent confusion over the fact that Ireland is an independent nation—I welcome the new president’s interest in Irish politics. 

Where Trump embraced the “colonial nostalgia” that defines Boris Johnson (a man who once managed to insult two ex-British colonies at once by asking why former Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whose father is Indian, “wasn’t called Murphy like all the rest of them”), Biden’s election makes clear the costs of Britain’s imperial isolationism. And while it is disheartening that the threat of a diminished trade relationship with the United States may prove more important to Britain’s Conservative government than their moral and legal obligations to their neighbors, I trust the Biden administration will use its clout to counter Brexit’s sectarian potential and facilitate good relations among its allies on the island of Ireland, both Irish and British. 

I trust the Biden administration will use its clout to counter Brexit’s sectarian potential and facilitate good relations among its allies on the island of Ireland, both Irish and British.

This is a somewhat uncomfortable space for me to occupy. Following the body of literature referenced above, I am generally wary of U.S. interventionism, including when it is presented as a prophylactic against sectarianism. I am not offering an endorsement of Biden’s broader foreign policy proposals, which I am unqualified to judge. Still, so long as Boris Johnson—a colonial apologist whose approach to Ireland is described by Fintan O’Toole as, “to put it charitably, cavalier”—is the occupant of 10 Downing Street, I know I’m not alone among the Irish abroad in welcoming Biden to the White House. Céad míle fáilte, Joe.

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