When Nancy Pelosi arrived in Dublin in April last year after a couple of days in London, her reception could hardly have been more different.
On her visit to the U.K., the House Speaker and one of the most powerful figures in American politics had been lectured by Brexit supporters. She’d been hosted at Downing Street, but by the chancellor of the exchequer rather than Theresa May, the prime minister at the time.
In Ireland, she was invited to address the joint houses of parliament, a rare honor bestowed on the likes of Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton. Her speech drew a standing ovation led by rock band U2’s frontman Bono. Later, she dined at Dublin Castle, once the seat of British power in Ireland, with all the pomp of a state engagement.
“It was pretty remarkable,” said U.S. Congressman Brendan Boyle, who accompanied Pelosi on that trip. “It seemed like everyone who was part of the Irish government or important institutions was at that.”
As fraught trade talks with the European Union reach denouement, the contrasting diplomacy may come back to haunt the U.K. Ireland is the EU member with the most to lose from Brexit, yet it also has the ear of powerful American allies who could make life difficult for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he seeks to strengthen transatlantic economic ties.
Pelosi left Dublin vowing not to allow Brexit harm the peace process in Northern Ireland, one of the key sticking points in talks between the U.K. and EU. That sentiment was then echoed by Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat who is now set to become the most Irish president since John F. Kennedy.
For Boyle, it was an example of the “soft power” Ireland has deployed throughout the Brexit process, a microcosm of Ireland’s ability to woo U.S. lawmakers and outflank the U.K. in the court of international opinion.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney summed up the support Ireland draws from its allies at a Georgetown University seminar this week. “If I hadn’t come to Washington, Washington would have come to me,” Coveney said.
Britain remains a critical and powerful ally of the U.S., militarily, geopolitically and economically. It was Johnson who Biden called first in Europe after winning the election this month. Yet an affinity with Ireland runs deep.
How Ireland won American support to protect itself from the Brexit fallout centers around family connections and long-held links between the two countries. It’s also the result of an orchestrated campaign by the Irish government.
It was about a year after the 2016 Brexit referendum “that we first heard there was even an issue on this,” said Congressman Peter King, the Republican co-chair of the Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus. “Then it really started to develop, and talk of “the Brits digging in.’”
That issue is whether Brexit will undermine the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that drew a line under three decades of violence in the U.K. province of Northern Ireland.
Frontier checkpoints in Ireland effectively disappeared with the accord and because both countries were in the EU’s single market. With the U.K. leaving the EU, the 310-mile dotted line running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south forms the bloc’s only land frontier with Britain.
Ireland activated its old network of allies in the U.S., many of whom were veterans of the peace process, while also courting a younger generation of U.S. politicians.
President Clinton was one of the architects of the accord, taking a hands-on role in contrast to predecessors such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who had largely deferred to the British on the Irish question. And, significantly, support for Ireland spanned the political divide.
“We don’t agree when the sun rises and sets, but we have common ground on resolving the longest running dispute in the western world,” Congressman Richard Neal, whose four grandparents were from Ireland and is the Democratic co-chair of the Irish caucus, told the Georgetown seminar with King.
Neale Richmond, a spokesperson on European affairs for Irish governing coalition party Fine Gael, recalls addressing a lunch for a visiting American delegation in 2019. The lunch was held at Iveagh House, the headquarters of the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a grand 18th century townhouse donated by the Guinness family to the Irish state.
“We treated every visiting U.S. delegation properly,” Richmond said. “They wouldn’t all have had a lot of interest in Brexit beforehand. By the end of the lunch, they were sold.”
The U.K., on the other hand, has sought to defend its position on the Irish border after threatening in September to break international law by reneging on key parts of its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
Richmond gave the example of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s recent trip to Washington. While there, Raab said he would explain to the U.S. that it was the EU that was exerting pressure on the peace process.
Ireland was pushing an open door, sometimes aided by good fortune. Pelosi had no historic links to Ireland, but her son-in-law does and her three grandchildren, Liam, Sean and Ryan, were all christened in Ireland.
The presidential election has only enhanced that. Donald Trump has been a vocal supporter of Brexit and Johnson’s Conservative government in London has been pushing for a trade deal with the U.S. That may now be more dependent on the outcome of negotiations with the EU.
Biden tweeted in September that the Good Friday Agreement can’t become a “casualty of Brexit.” When he spoke with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin, he assured him that he had used his earlier call with Johnson to drive home the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Then Biden went on to discuss the excitement back in his Irish ancestral home, that weekend’s results in the Gaelic football championship, and told Martin “try hold me back” from visiting Ireland as president.
“I’ve found over the years the Brits, they don’t realize the impact of the U.S.,” said King, the New York congressman. Of Biden, he said, “I don’t like to think of it as taking sides, but he’s certainly going to be a very aggressive progressive protector of Ireland.”