Joe Biden’s woke conquest of Ireland

The president is using his Irish identity to bully Brexit Britain.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Brexit Identity Politics Politics UK USA

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Power often wears the mask of weakness in the 21st century. Think of those strapping, angry ‘transwomen’ who cry victimhood even as they harass real women. Or privileged students in the luxury surrounds of Oxford or Yale heaping pressure on hapless administrators to decolonise the curriculum so that they might be spared the pain of reading Shakespeare, Chaucer and other long-dead white men. Or Hillary Clinton depicting herself as a victim of sexism even as she wielded her extraordinary power to brand half her compatriots as deplorables. Julie Burchill calls them ‘cry-bullies’ – a ‘hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper’.

Now there’s President Biden, the most powerful cry-bully in the world. He’s taken the grievance machine global. He speaks of his historic pain even as he impresses his imperial power across the Earth. Witness his visit to Ireland. He’s hyping up his status as a descendent of the poor Irish who fled Famine-era Ireland on coffin ships (the ‘cry’ bit) in order that he might add some identitarian weight to his bossing around of Britain and Ireland in the here and now (the ‘bully’ bit). He poses as a victim of imperialism – his ancestors fled the auld country ‘because of what the Brits had been doing’, he once said – even as he engages in imperialism. Behold the weaponisaton of ‘Oirishness’, the deployment of that self-pitying identity to the cause of fortifying American power in the world.

Biden’s Irish jaunt feels like a new kind of geopolitics. Let’s call it identitarian imperialism. Power is often underwritten by identity today. ‘As a queer person…’, ‘As a black transwoman…’, ‘As a descendent of slaves…’, people say in solemn preface to their political statements. It’s an ‘assertion of authority’, argues Kwame Anthony Appiah. What they’re really saying, says Appiah, is that ‘as a member of this or that social group, I have experiences that lend my remarks special weight’. We’ve seen power be made contingent on identity everywhere from the campus to the workplace, so why not in US foreign policy, too? ‘As a survivor of the intergenerational trauma of Irish suffering…’, Biden essentially says before shaking his mighty fist at Brexit Britain.

Biden is zipping between Belfast and Louth and Dublin. He’s mixing politics and genealogy. In Belfast he pretty sternly ‘advised’ all parties to sign up to the Windsor Framework, the new British-EU deal that would keep Northern Ireland beholden to certain rules of the EU’s Single Market. In County Louth he went to the pub with his fifth cousins. (This gives a sense of how historically distant his links to Ireland are: the average person has around 17,000 fifth cousins.)

Along the way he’s not missed one opportunity to remind folk of the suffering of his forefathers. My people ‘left during the Famine’, he said at the start of his speech in Dundalk. ‘They left everything behind’, he said. No one doubts the awfulness of the Famine – I dread to think how many of my ancestors perished in it – but it was nearly two centuries ago. Why dwell on it? In defining himself by a long-gone calamity, Biden is embracing the woke fashion for presenting oneself as an heir to historic pain, an inheritor of the mantle of victimhood, one of those people whose views carry ‘special weight’.

Everywhere you look today, people are fashioning a victim identity from the suffering of their ancestors. Well-off students say they bear the scars of the colonial exploitation of their forefathers. Commentators of colour write of how hard it is to ‘endure [the] historical inhumanity’ of slavery. Unable to find a convincing case for victimhood in their own comfortable, learned lives, they plunder the agony of their ancestors instead. Biden’s doing something similar. A gushing CNN piece on his visit to Ireland says his ancestors’ pain left an ‘indelible impression’ on him. He is seemingly haunted by the image of the Famine-era ‘coffin ships’ that left Ireland for America, so called because so many of the passengers died en route. In his memoir he even refers to life’s difficulties as ‘the Irishness of life’.

And just as claims to historical suffering underwrite power dynamics on campuses and in the cultural sphere, so they do in Biden’s woke conquest of Ireland, too. Pro-Biden commentators gleefully insist that his identity – that Irishness, that pain – increases his power in Anglo-Irish affairs. ‘[The] president’s heritage is a form of soft power’, says the Observer. And that ‘soft power’ will ‘be on full display’ in Ireland. Biden’s ‘tout[ing] of his Irish roots’, his leaning on ‘personal lore’, should add weight to his insistence that Britain and Ireland come to a satisfactory post-Brexit arrangement, says Bloomberg.

Even ostensibly anti-imperialist voices have welcomed the irony of a descendant of the Irish Famine now having the authority to reprimand the nation that ruled Ireland during that Famine – ‘the Brits’. In 2020, when Biden was bristling at the prospect of a ‘Hard Brexit’, Emma Dabiri, the Irish author of What White People Can Do Next, celebrated ‘the circularity’ of the fact that a son of the Famine now has ‘the authority to thwart Britain’s Brexit ambitions’ and its ‘continued disregard for Ireland’s fate’. There you have it: imperial interference ain’t so bad when it comes dressed in the finery of identity. America’s arrogant urge to meddle in the affairs of smaller nations – in this case, Brexit Britain – is forgivable, it seems, when it’s underwritten by the cult of the victim rather than the realpolitik of power.

And make no mistake, America’s ‘authority to thwart Brexit Britain’s ambitions’ – in Dabiri’s words – is immense. Biden is known to be anti-Brexit. He and other leading Dems have threatened to block trade deals with the UK if we dare to pursue a ‘Hard Brexit’ – in other words, Brexit, the complete leaving of the EU. In Belfast this week, Biden said the US would invest $6 billion in Northern Ireland if the power-sharing Assembly is restored. But that can only happen if the Democratic Unionist Party buys into the Windsor Framework with its stipulation that the EU will still play a considerable role in Northern Ireland’s affairs. This is imperial blackmail, no? If Washington were to make the investment of billions of dollars in an African nation contingent on that nation’s willingness to acquiesce to a globalist agenda, to an American agenda, we would instantly recognise it as intolerable colonial-style pressure. But it’s okay, it seems, when it does it in Northern Ireland. Why? Because Biden’s ancestors boarded coffin ships 170 years ago?

The president has carried out a woke conquest of Ireland. He has deployed the ‘soft power’ of his identity to try to ‘thwart’ the democratic wish of the majority of British voters to withdraw our entire nation from the European Union. Behold Victim Imperialism, cry-bullying as foreign policy. Both Britain and Ireland lose out as a result of this expansion of American power in Anglo-Irish affairs. Britain loses out because our internal democracy is being subtly subverted by economic blackmail and threats from Washington. ‘Soften Brexit if you want to trade with us…’

And Ireland loses out because the more it becomes a patsy state of the globalist elites, whether Washington or Brussels, the less real sovereignty it will enjoy over its political destiny. Biden’s trip has confirmed the tragically subjugated state 21st-century Ireland finds itself in, where it is increasingly reliant on American capital on one side and European patronage on the other. A pincer movement of external interests squeezing the life out of Ireland’s hard-fought-for independence. Ireland might win greater favour from its imperial backers when it does their bidding against Brexit Britain, but it does so at the expense of its own democracy and self-respect.

The irony: ‘Oirish’ Biden fancies himself as an instrument of vengeance for the historic wrongs committed by Britain in Ireland, but actually he’s reduced Ireland to a playpen for his own identitarian preening and an outpost for American influence in Europe. It was bad when Ireland was a Famine-ravaged colony that Catherine Roche and James Finnegan were forced to leave – it will also be bad if it now becomes the personal moral fiefdom of their great grandson.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Brexit Identity Politics Politics UK USA


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