Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]
July 2, 2022
By Simon Carswell
Ahead of America’s July 4th celebrations, Claire Cronin talks about her faith, her frustration at the lack of political action on US gun violence, and how she expects President Biden to visit Ireland soon
Claire Cronin likes to tell story of John F Kennedy, brother of Jean Kennedy Smith, the last female US ambassador to serve before her in Dublin.
During his 1963 visit, the then US president stood at a window in Deerfield, the ambassador’s Phoenix Park residence in Dublin, and looked across the park.
“The story goes that one of his aides said to him: ‘When you’re not president, what Democrat are you going to support to follow you?’ And he said: ‘I’m going to support whatever Democrat makes me ambassador to Ireland,’” she says.
Cronin (62), almost five months in her job as President Joe Biden’s envoy to Ireland, is equally taken by the view towards the Dublin mountains from this majestic 18th century residence. The ocean used to be her favourite view; now it is the sight of this city park from Dublin’s own White House. The history of the house, as Cronin sees it, is as breathtaking as the view around it.
“When I think of how many presidents who have actually visited this residence, it is a little overwhelming but I will tell you more beautiful than the house are the grounds of the property — I walk here every morning and it is just spectacular,” she tells The Irish Times.
The Massachusetts lawyer-turned-politician-turned-diplomat arrived in Ireland for just the second time when she landed here last February and presented her credentials to President Michael D Higgins accompanied by her husband Ray and their two daughters, Kara and Kerry. Businessman Ray founded his own management analysis company, Club Benchmarking, in Boston. It advises golf and country clubs and other private recreational clubs in the US.
She travelled to Ireland for the first time in 1992, shortly before Bill Clinton moved into the White House, for her brother’s wedding to a woman from Donegal. She even remembers walking by Deerfield on that occasion and thinking how beautiful it was.
Cronin, a state politician and the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, has been a loyal supporter of Biden. She was a fundraising “bundler” for his presidential bid in Massachusetts and helped Biden stage an upset in Massachusetts in the Democratic primary election, by beating local favourite Senator Elizabeth Warren, and another New Englander, Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders. She appeared on national television during the 2020 Democratic National Convention casting the state’s nominating votes for Biden, helping to make him the party’s presidential nominee against Donald Trump in that year’s election.
As the granddaughter of an Irish emigrant and a close ally of Biden’s from one of the most Irish states in the union, she was a suitable pick as the president’s ambassador to Ireland.
In a country with 30 million people claiming Irish ancestry, Cronin hails from a part of the United States with one of the greatest concentrations of Irishness. From Brockton, just south of Boston, Cronin says she jokes with staff at the embassy in Ballsbridge that Boston is “the epicentre of US-Irish relations” — a fact of which she says she is very proud.
As she prepares for the July 4th Independence Day celebrations at the embassy and the official party next week at the residence, Cronin says she is pining most for some way to watch her beloved basketball team, the Boston Celtics, play the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Like many from Boston, Cronin is a keen sports fan, following the Celtics, the Red Sox (baseball) and the Bruins (ice hockey). Her first Red Sox baseball game was as a seven-year-old in 1967.
“We have such great sporting teams,” she says proudly.
Cronin, who was born Claire McLaughlin, can trace her family roots to Ireland on both sides, to the Inishowen peninsula in Donegal through her father and to Cork through her mother. All four of her mother’s grandparents were Irish.
She drew inspiration for her career from her father, a survivor of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the US into the second World War. He served the remainder of the conflict fighting in the Pacific theatre of war. She still has his diaries and returns to them frequently to read about his experiences in the war.
“It was something he talked about frequently. I always have believed in the power of public service, that that is a way to give back to your community, your town, your state, your country, but the ultimate service are those that have served in our military and he in many ways probably inspired my desire to be involved in both the law and public service,” she says.
As a lawyer in Massachusetts, she worked for a mediation firm that negotiated the $85 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Boston over the sex-abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. She handled more than 200 individuals cases as one of the arbitrators. She looks back on this time as being “very difficult”, primarily for the victims, but the experience affected her too.
“Being a Catholic, it was very hard to come to grips with how this happened within our church. It did shake my faith. For three years, I did not attend Mass,” she says.
Cronin says there was much grief and healing involved in the mediation process but she does not believe the financial compensation ever fully brought closure to the victims of the abuse.
“It was important to know that the victims were believed and the harm they suffered was recognised. And for me, if I could have in my role as arbitrator provided some compassion and empathy for them, that was important to me. The money will never change what happened, but I have comfort in knowing that the process was as good as it could be,” she says.
She responded to other victims in one of her first acts as a state representative after being elected in Massachusetts in 2012. As a newly elected legislator, she was attending what she calls “state rep school” at a local university when news of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut and the murders of 20 schoolchildren and six staff broke. In response to the atrocity, the following year, in one of her first acts as a legislator, she helped enact some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. She says those laws have had an effect: she says Massachusetts has lowest number of gun deaths as a result of the gun controls introduced after Sandy Hook.
The killing of 19 children and two teachers at the Robb Elementary School school in Uvalde, Texas by an 18-year-old on May 24th was a reminder for Cronin of the radical change still required to tackle gun violence in the US.
“I just shake my head and say how can this happen again and again and again and have no action. At what point will the safety and security of our children in the people that live in our community come before the gun lobby in the United States. It has been a source of frustration for me,” she says.
She believes the approach in Massachusetts is a “shining example” of what should be done at a national level in the country.
“We certainly have a right to bear arms, but at some point, you have to look at the reasonableness of that. We have a right to freedom of speech but you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. I think that regulations that are reasonable and allow people to have arms if they want them for self-defence or hunting, no problem with that. But we have to do more to make sure guns are not put in the hands of those people who should not have possession,” she says.
Cronin says she is “very heartened” to see efforts by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to take action on gun violence in the wake of the latest mass school shooting.
A wily political operator, Cronin has experience of getting things done. She made her mark in her home state as a skilled legislator in the Massachusetts State House. She broke glass ceilings, becoming the first woman to chair the legislature’s judiciary committee and the first woman to be appointed majority leader of the house, the second highest-ranking position in the house.
‘A step back’
In her role as judiciary committee chair, Cronin expanded access to abortion. She says that Massachusetts is one of only two American states that has recognised the right to choose in the state’s constitution and in case law. At the time of this interview, the US Supreme Court had not yet overturned the landmark Roe v Wade decision that legalised abortion nation in 1973. Speaking about a report on a draft that this was about to happen, Cronin said that such a move “certainly would be a step back.”
On another divisive political topic in the US — immigration reform — Cronin believes any deals for the Irish can only come with solutions for all illegal immigrants. It is a subject she is very familiar with; she knows of the many “undocumented” Irish in “the pockets of Boston” where they have over-stayed their legal visas and remain vulnerable to deportation, despite being part of the community, contributing to society and even paying taxes.
“Immigration is a tough topic in Congress these days and what will need to happen in order to address the issue of Irish people who are currently in the United States and may have overstayed is going to have to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t see any method of carving out anything separately. It will have to be part and parcel of something bigger and I hope as time goes on, we will be able to see some bipartisan movement,” she says.
Equally, she does not see opportunities for new categories of legal visas being created specifically for Irish emigrants, young professionals or otherwise, looking to work in the US. Congress came close in 2018 to approving 5,000 surplus “E3″ working visas, awarded to Australia in 2005 as part of a US-Australia trade agreement, being made available to Irish people.
“It is still going to have to be part of comprehensive reform. I don’t know that there is any way to carve out any individuals in that regard,” she says of any new visa programme for the Irish.
Cronin is keen to continue promoting the J-1 visa programme for Irish students travelling to the US every summer, conscious that Irish America has aged over recent decades with the absence of new waves of Irish emigrants settling in the US. She points out that a half-century ago there were multiple politicians serving in the Massachusetts legislature who were first-generation Irish; now, she says, there are just five elected officials who are first generation.
“Our ancestral relations are the foundation of our ties but our trade and investment is the glue that holds us together, but so too we need to introduce young Irish citizens, young people to America,” she says, seeing the J-1 programme as one way to help replenish Irish America.
On this side of the Atlantic, Cronin is running what she calls her “Open Doors” programme to build relationship with young Irish people. She opens the ambassador’s residence up to between 60 and 70 students every week, inviting them in and showing them around the building and grounds, and holding “town hall” events where they can ask her any question. She talks about her role as ambassador. The intention is to build a connection with the US.
“By the time I leave here, I expect to have had a couple of thousand 17-year-olds who have had the chance to come in and see what an ambassador does. Hopefully, they will want to avail of the J-1 visa programme,” she says.
In another attempt to build ties between the countries, Cronin last month (June) led a delegation of 30 Irish businesses to a conference in Washington DC to consider opportunities to invest in the US. Some of the business came onboard as a result of Cronin’s travels across the country. Her intention in her first months as ambassador is to visit all 26 counties in the Republic.
The highest-profile appearance of her stint as ambassador so far was in April when she announced, alongside gardaí and US Government officials in Dublin, the offer of a $5 million reward for information leading to the disruption of the Kinahan crime gang and the arrests of leaders Christy Kinahan snr and his sons Daniel Kinahan and Christy Kinahan jnr.
Cronin says she is confident that the high-profile, joint actions by the Irish, British and US law enforcement and financial intelligence officials will limit the illegal activities of the Kinahans internationally. She pointed to the response of the United Arab Emirates in announcing further sanctions against the Kinahans that will affect them in their base in Dubai as an example of the ripple effect of the co-ordinated action.
“All of these things are going to just make it much more likely that the Kinahans will be held to account for their activities. It was a great transnational co-operation between all these various law enforcement groups and we stand united on that,” she says.
She cites the actions taken against the Kinahans and the rallying of Nato allies in support of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion as examples of President Biden’s multilateralism and “consensus-driven approach”, which stands in stark contrast to the insular, “America First” isolationism of the Donald Trump years.
“I think history will look very kindly upon President Biden for his ability to bring us back together,” she says.
“I think President Biden has shown the leadership that you need at this critical time in history. I think we would not have seen that level of profound, decent and good leadership with President Biden’s predecessor.”
Cronin acknowledges that the Trump years were “not good” for the people of the US or the people of the world but that she has great confidence in Biden’s leadership at “this very critical and very challenging time.”
Asked if she and other Democrats are fearful of Trump running again in 2024, she watches her words very carefully. “I expect to elect President Biden again,” she says confidently.
One of the biggest tasks in Cronin’s in-tray at the embassy is preparing for a potential presidential visit by Biden, a proud Irish-American with close connections with Mayo and Louth who is said to be keen to visit during his time in the White House.
“I hope to see President Biden visit while I am here and I think he will,” says Cronin.
“He has expressed a desire to visit during a telephone call with me; we spoke on St. Patrick’s Day and he has indicated a strong desire to come. When that will be, I don’t know but I expect we will be seeing him some time in the near future.”
As for whether Biden might express the same wish as Kennedy did in 1963 on his visit — to be ambassador to Ireland one day — Cronin wraps the interview with: “Let’s leave it at that.”