John Feehery: Lessons from Ireland

John Feehery: Lessons from Ireland
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Ireland is on the mind of official Washington today.

From the White House, where the president receives shamrocks from the Irish prime minister, to the Congress, where the Speaker hosts a luncheon in his honor, St. Patrick’s Day is well celebrated in the nation’s capital. 

The Emerald Isle may hold a nostalgic place in the hearts of millions of Americans, with partiers hitting the pubs to toast their heritage, but policymakers in the U.S. can learn a lot from the Irish experience. 

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Here are a few examples:

Immigration: When the Irish flooded into America by the millions throughout the second half of the 19th century, they were greeted with derision, hatred, discrimination and a new political party called the Know-Nothings. The rhetoric that the Irish faced then is not that dissimilar to the anti-immigrant rhetoric Hispanics face today. They were accused of driving down wages, of spreading disease, of being indolent, lazy, stupid and criminals. But the Irish built the railroads, fought in wars, became cops, and for several generations, ran most big cities. And, like every immigrant group that followed, they helped to build America into the greatest country on earth.

Taxation: For most of its history, Ireland was a socialist republic, coupling a generous social welfare system with high tax rates. But somewhere in the late 1990s, Irish policy-makers decided to cut taxes, especially on corporations. The result was brisk economic growth, and pundits soon called Ireland the “Celtic Tiger.” That tiger got caught in the economic turmoil caused by the U.S. financial crisis, but Ireland did not budge on its corporate tax rates, even in its darkest days. Ireland’s corporate tax rate is still among the lowest in the world, and the country now has the highest economic growth rate in all of Europe, at 4.9 percent. 

Ferguson: Ireland proves that trouble with policing isn’t a racial thing. The distrust that persisted between the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary was every bit as toxic as the troubles that persist in black communities and police forces across America. Officials in Northern Ireland don’t have a solution, necessarily, but they are working hard to build trust between communities that have been at war for hundreds of years. From changing the name of the RUC to aggressively trying to hire more Catholics in the police service, all parties recognize that there can’t really be peace until both communities truly have a positive relationship. 

The Freedom Caucus: In Northern Ireland, when the Irish Republican Army and its political arm, Sinn Féin, started negotiating with the British government on a peace process that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, not everybody in the nationalist movement was very happy. As a result, a group calling itself The Real IRA formed, made up of hard-liners who didn’t want peace to break out. There is always going to be somebody who is not happy when deals are cut. 

At the very beginnings of the Irish Republic, civil war broke out between partisans who supported Michael Collins, who had concluded a deal with the British government, and those who supported Éamon de Valera, who famously broke with Collins. In politics, there will always be those who want to make a deal and those who don’t. That’s just how it goes. 

Austerity sucks: It might be necessary, but cutting government spending, especially on middle-class welfare programs, is politically dangerous. The Irish government, in dealing with the huge bills associated with the financial disaster of 2007, enacted a tough austerity program. The result? Approval ratings for the government dropped down to the low 20s. As the deadline for calling the election nears, Fine Gael has loosened the purse strings, and its approval ratings have recovered slightly. As Washington policymakers contemplate cuts to entitlement programs, they need to remember that while it might be the right thing to do, it’s not the smartest thing if they want to keep their jobs. 

Feehery is president of QGA Public Affairs and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com. He served as spokesman to former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip, and as speechwriter to former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).