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Kevin Cullen

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day: A call to reinvent the US-Ireland relationship

Even as the number of those who identify as Irish-American drops, more Americans have an affinity for Ireland — not because their granny came from there, but because Saoirse Ronan does.
Even as the number of those who identify as Irish-American drops, more Americans have an affinity for Ireland — not because their granny came from there, but because Saoirse Ronan does.(Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File)

This week, the Green Tide rolls in. St. Patrick’s Day is upon us and so everything must be green. Green clothes, green food, green beer. We do this because we have always done this. If it feels outdated, that’s because it is.

Trina Vargo, former foreign policy adviser to Ted Kennedy, says it’s time to put away the tired Paddywhackery and forge a new relationship between the United States and Ireland, one based on modern realities, equality, and mutual self-interest.

Vargo’s new book, “Shenanigans: The US-Ireland Relationship in Uncertain Times,” has gained some attention for its juicy bits. Her take on Hillary Clinton’s much disputed claim, during her 2008 presidential campaign, to have played a major role in the Northern Ireland peace process is scathing.

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Even more eyebrow-raising is Vargo’s claim that she was put on the Clintons’ enemies list after Chelsea Clinton’s boyfriend did not get a scholarship to study abroad in Ireland. The US-Ireland Alliance, which Vargo founded in 1998, administers the scholarships, named after former senator George Mitchell of Maine, who led the talks that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.

When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, the State Department cut funding for the Mitchell scholarships. Representatives for the Clintons issued a statement calling Vargo’s claims “patently false.”

Still, the Clintons emerge from Vargo’s book looking petty and vindictive, which might be a little unfair to Bill Clinton, given what he and his administration did to bring about a peace process that has brought two decades of relative peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

But to dismiss Vargo’s book as mostly political score-settling is to miss her larger point: the need to reimagine and reinvent the US-Ireland relationship.

She says that relationship was created using a paradigm in which Ireland was a poor country that sent many of its people to America for a better life, and that the relationship needs to reflect a modern Ireland that consistently ranks among the world’s most globalized economies and has one of the highest standards of living. She argues that people in Ireland and the United States, not just their governments, need to rebuild a relationship more as equals.

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Aidan Browne, an Irish-born lawyer and partner at Sullivan & Worcester in Boston, agrees with Vargo’s idea of updating that relationship, and has seen encouraging signs that suggest the evolution has begun.

Every year, in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland’s prime minister, or taoiseach, heads to Washington while much of the Irish Cabinet lands in various cities with histories of Irish immigration, none bigger in proportion of population than Boston’s. A generation ago, those ministers would don their green ties and head off to Irish fraternal organizations, like the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

But this week, Richard Bruton, Ireland’s minister for communications, climate action, and environment, showed up not at the AOH but at MIT, for a science event, after meeting business leaders from the New England Council at the Hampshire House. He wore not a green tie, but one with blue and white stripes, the colors of the UN.

Browne, for one, noticed the difference, in language, in the “Global Ireland” branding. Gone are the overt appeals to sentimentality. Investors are being lured not with the prospect of finding an ancestral village, but an educated workforce and Europe’s lowest corporate tax rate.

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“It’s a very modern pitch, focused on the economic relationship and the parity of education,” said Browne.

It’s more than business. As the relationship becomes more familiar than familial, culture becomes even more pronounced in importance. Increasingly, even as the number of those who identify as Irish-American drops, more Americans have an affinity for Ireland, not because their granny came from there but because Bono, Saoirse Ronan, and Colm Tóibin do.

If, as Yeats once observed, peace comes dropping slow, so do massive cultural changes. I wouldn’t throw out the green tie just yet.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.