O'Dowd can tap valuable support of Irish Americans


Niall O’Dowd’s ideas on mobilising support from Irish Americans and other parts of the diaspora should spur aspirants in the Áras race, writes BRUCE MORRISON

LET ME start by confessing that US newspaper publisher Niall O’Dowd is a friend of more than 20 years and that we have laboured together on many projects, such as immigration to America and peace in Northern Ireland. And let me further confess that I was as surprised as anyone that Niall is contemplating running for president of Ireland.

But the decision of The Irish Timesto publish Walter Ellis’s peculiar attack piece requires a response from someone who knows both Niall and Irish America, since Ellis demonstrated he knows little about either.

Apparently Niall’s problem is that he is an Irish American. And Ellis knows that Irish Americans are all “misty-eyed” residents of Glocca Morra, unaware of the real Ireland. I am sure there are Irish Americans to fit the out-of-touch image this suggests. But the Irish America in which I have collaborated with Niall to get things done is very different.

That would be the one where our friend, Bill Clinton, enlisted and assisted by Irish America, played the key role (at least according to most Irish people I meet) in turning the page on the Troubles, and centuries of Anglo-Irish conflict.

It would be the one where our Irish-American friend, Chuck Feeney, invested hundreds of millions of euro in revitalising Irish higher education and encouraging inward investment into Northern Ireland when few would even visit there.

That Irish America, comprising active and generous contributors to progress in Ireland, has been Niall’s focus for the past quarter-century. His publications have systematically discovered, recognised and honoured the huge achievements of people of Irish heritage in the economic, artistic, social and political life of America.

That process has given him the standing and the capacity to enlist these American leaders in “giving back” to and “investing” in Ireland, the land of their birth or of the birth of their recent or more distant ancestors.

As I understand his campaign, Niall is suggesting that as president he could mobilise this kind of interest and contribution on a systematic basis from Irish Americans and from other parts of the diaspora.

One can think this is a role for a president or not. But, scoffing at the proposition that a successful entrepreneur and organiser of entrepreneurs such as Niall might know something about corralling investors in an Irish recovery is pathetic. And the last thing Ireland needs now is naysayers. At the very least, I would hope Niall’s ideas would spur other aspirants in the presidential race to substitute “yes we can” for “woe is me”.

Ellis and others seem intent on persuading Irish voters that America is full of naive romantics and that the country itself is riven with ethnic and political conflicts. Europe is presented as the beacon of hope for what ails Ireland.

As for America, Ellis lives in a different country from the one I know. Problems abound, but the entrepreneurial spirit continues to thrive. As for Europe, it has hardly seemed all that generous when its big banks were on the hook for funding profligate lending in Ireland. We all know who got bailed out and who did not. Many Europeans do not understand the role of heritage in an immigrant society such as America. Our nationality as Americans is defined by the charter of democracy and human rights on which the country was founded.

There is no racial, ethnic or religious test to be or become an American. Nor must you “check your heritage” at the door to join.

So we are comfortable with being 100 per cent Americans, while taking special pride and giving special attention to the lands of our heritage. It is this special character that Niall is experienced in tapping – and that he suggests could be further mobilised if he were to be president.

Lest anyone think I was raised on a “green beer on St Patrick’s Day” image of Ireland, some biography is in order. My paternal grandfather was an Ulster Scot, born in Co Cavan in 1881. He came to America at 10, but never left his dim view of Catholics behind. Yet in America, he married an English Catholic. My mother’s parents were German immigrants, and I have always been a Lutheran. My Ireland was the land of the Troubles that I learned about first hand in the 1980s as a member of congress focused on human rights. That experience led me to work on the peace process, while my chairmanship of the immigration subcommittee led me to the “Morrison visas”.

I have never been to Glocca Morra.

I do not know whether in the end Niall will run for president. If he does, it will be the Irish voters, not people like me, who will decide whether to elect him.

However, I am sure the goodwill, ethnic pride and loyalty of Irish Americans, directed toward the people and nation of Ireland, is a valuable source of economic and social support in a time of great stress.

Bruce Morrison is a former US congressman from Connecticut and is a member of the Democratic Party

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