Heritage: Is there an Irish-American vote?

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Barack Obama at The Dubliner pub, D.C., St. Patrick’s Day 2012
How It’s New York: Much of New York was built by the Irish, and the Irish-American vote has deep roots here. See, for example, the new BBC America show Copper (yeah, do see it, we love it!)
How It’s Irish: Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are playing up their Irish roots. We asked Irish-American Brendan W. Gill, one of the Irish Echo’s Top 40 under 40 last year.
An earlier version of this post appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Aug. 21, 2012.

What Is The Irish Vote? Brendan W. Gill On Paul Ryan

The selection of Paul Ryan for Republican Candidate Mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential running mate on August 11 has sparked the Romney campaign.
Handsome, tall, young (only 42), articulate and experienced (Ryan’s been in Congress since 1998), Ryan seemed an ideal friendly face to the more reserved and, to some, off-putting Romney.

J.F.K. address on Civil Rights, 1963
Ryan is also of Irish descent, and looks it, with big blue eyes and dark hair. He’s been compared to JFK in the media.

He’s Irish on his father’s side, German on his mother’s.
Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, is Irish on his mother’s side, Irish, French and English on his father’s.
Niall O’Dowd wrote an article looking at Joe Biden and Paul Ryan as “shanty” vs. “lace curtain” Irish.

Ryan’s also a practicing Catholic who attends mass weekly, and has three children.
He’s said he’s very very pro-life, which is something that appeals to many Catholic voters, where Biden is pro-choice.

So far, so good, you might think.
Not so fast.
Ryan is Catholic, but he hardly has a unified Catholic support.

In fact, Catholic bishops and nuns have gone on the record criticizing his proposed budgets for being out of line with Christian values.
In April, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sent letters to the House Agriculture Committee and to the Ways and Means Committee, criticizing Ryan for cutting food stamps, among other things.
And in June, the “nuns on the bus” went on a nine-state bus tour to protest Ryan’s budget plans that take government aid away from the poor.
“As Catholic Sisters, we must speak out against the current House Republican budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). We do so because it harms people who are already suffering,” they write.

Will any of this hurt Paul Ryan? His brother Tobin, in an article by Cathy Hayes in IrishCentral, has spoken of how their family history in the famine has shaped them: James Ryan fled the potato famine in 1851.
That pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story has appeal, and Ryan toughed it out when his father died suddenly when he was a teenager.

Yet many are already pointing out that the policies that Paul supports are the same kinds of policies the British government supported then; strict, laissez-faire capitalism.

We spoke to New Jersey Essex County Freeholder, district 5, Brendan W. Gill, who is also the chair of the Democratic Party of Montclair, and NJ Chief of Staff for Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, about whether there really is an “Irish vote” and how Ryan will or will not interact with it.
“Ultimately there will be a little bit of a split in the Irish community,” Brendan said.

“There will be some natural appeal to the Irish, and to Irish catholic voters, but the bishops were very critical of his budget, saying that it was not consistent with the values of the church.”

Asked whether Irish-Americans tend to lean towards one political party, Brendan answered that “Most Catholic male Irish vales tend to trend Republican.”

Speaking from his perspective as a Democrat, Brendan said that he thought the choice of Ryan for running mate was a good sign, because it showed that Romney was not choosing a veep to appeal to independents but rather to shore up his own base.

But while many Irish-Americans are Republicans, Brendan said that Ryan’s ideas are

…not consistent with what Irish Americans have stood for in this country.
“If I were speaking to an Irish group, I would be critical of his proposals being inconsistent with what is the Irish-American tradition, which is to not turn your backs on people who are in need. His budget proposals would severely hurt the most vulnerable in our society.
“I truly believe that the Irish-American tradition is built on commitment to public service and commitment to community, not an idea of ‘I made it but you didn’t,’ but the idea of trying to give people equal opportunities.”

When I spoke to Brendan last week, he said that Ryan had backed items under George W. Bush’s presidency that he now opposes.

Since then, it has come out that Ryan has requested and accepted money under Obama’s stimulus plan for his constituents. 

While Brendan pointed out these inconsistencies, he also said that he thought Ryan was basically sincere.

“I imagine he believes the policies he’s pushing would somehow help these communities move forward. I am not ready to demonize him in that sense. However, I believe that what he is supporting, what he stands for, could have a dramatic impact and be contrary to what we in the Irish-American community have tried to do.”

Speaking at Seton Hall University in September, Dr. Terry Golway, the author of The Irish in America, among other books, pointed out that Irish politicians have a long history of helping their constituents down to the personal level, sending a note in the mail, personally giving money or aid to the impoverished.
There have been Irish in American politics since the Revolution.

Historically, they have generally voted Democratic, but that began to change when Ronald Reagan was elected.

Discussions of “the Irish vote” nearly always mean Irish Catholics in America; Irish Protestants have not really been looked at as part of that group.

The Catholic bishops, said Gill, were “very strong in the language they used about what this budget would mean for the poor in the country, and for seniors and the underserved.”

Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare, he said, would undermine health programs used by hundreds of thousands of seniors in this country, “if not millions. Ultimately, that cannot be consistent with what the church would be teaching.”
However, he said, it is unlikely that the Catholic church would be directly active in the campaigns.

So, is there an Irish vote in America?

 “It’s not unified in the same way as the Latino vote,” Brendan said. “As a community we are much more ingrained into the structure of American society.”

Some people, notably M.E. Synon, who writes for the Irish Daily Mail, are vehement that thre really is no such thing as an Irish-American vote. 

Over 37 million people, more than 11 percent of the population, claim some Irish heritage, according to the 2008 census: six times greater than the population of Ireland.

In New Jersey, said Gill,

“there absolutely is such a thing as the Irish-American vote, but we’re not a swing state.
“In Wisconsin, I don’t know.”

One advantage that Democrats might have, Gill said, is the huge popularity of President Bill Clinton, who is widely seen as having helped historically in Northern Ireland, and crediting with moving that peace process along.

Nevertheless, both campaigns will still court the Irish community, and target messages for them.

“It’s an important vote. There is an Irish-American Democratic organization, and an Irish-American Republican organization.” 

One thing we can say for sure: both sides will do their best to convince Irish-Americans that their candidate expresses the Irish-American way.
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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts