Opening doors with an Irish passport
Convivial, neutral, historically unaligned and tapping into the diaspora provided unique access on world affairs
US President Barack Obama receives a bowl of shamrock from Taoiseach Enda Kenny during a St Patrick’s Day reception at the White House, a fixed annual privilege granted to no other world leader. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/ Reuters
‘Hello,” I said. “My name is Conor O’Clery. I am the international business editor of The Irish Times of Dublin, Ireland’s leading newspaper, calling from my New York office.” After a few moments the Intel executive on the line responded. “Cool!”
The interview was a breeze after that. His amused response typified a phenomenon I frequently encountered in a quarter of a century reporting abroad for The Irish Times, especially in the US. It reflected a friendly – and sometimes patronising – attitude towards Ireland, and towards me as an Irish correspondent. Similarly when I sought an interview in Boston with the president of the Massachusetts senate, he swept me on to the senate floor, provoking a protest, “Stranger in the House!” “No stranger,” said my escort. “He’s The Irish Times.”
The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which I witnessed from my office window three blocks away, and which killed hundreds of Irish-American emergency workers, emphasised for me a special relationship between Ireland and the US. Ireland was one of the few countries outside the US to observe a day of mourning.
After the attack, I had to relocate to the W Hotel uptown. A few days later, my telephone bill exceeded $5,000. I told the manager I was using the room as an emergency office and, at this rate, it would bankrupt the newspaper.
“The Irish Times?” he said. “I’ll not let you leave until we agree a fair price.” He cut the final bill in half.
This benign attitude was a valuable asset when I was White House correspondent some years earlier. The offices of important Irish-American lawmakers opened their doors to me. My busiest day was March 17th, when political Ireland would descend on Washington to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at black-tie dinners, and the taoiseach of the day visited the Oval Office, a fixed annual privilege granted to no other world leader.
I found every president likes to claim Irish ancestry, including Barack Obama, who located a great-great-grandfather from Co Offaly. When President Bill Clinton got involved in the Irish peace process, I had my calls returned and landed three interviews with him, unheard of for a European reporter.
This unique access continued even after I became Asia correspondent and President Clinton visited China. I was put on a very short list for questions at his press conference, much to the chagrin of my colleagues from the world’s media, because he wanted to say something publicly about events in Northern Ireland.
In Asia and the Middle East especially, I found being Irish was a distinct plus, mainly because we are seen as convivial: Irish bars in every city; we never colonised anybody; and we are historically unaligned.
This neutrality had a practical application in Beijing, when demonstrators set upon western journalists after the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Multiple correspondents of The Irish Times bearing my name appeared on the streets that day after I handed out my business cards to colleagues, enabling them to tell angry protesters, “I’m Irish. And Ireland is not in Nato.”
I enjoyed good relations with fellow correspondents, but some Americans abroad tended to look down on a minnow such as The Irish Times. I was affronted when one US TV network heavyweight remarked to me at a press conference in Jakarta, “You are a long way from home.” I regretted not replying, “So are you.”
But I got some satisfaction later in Kuala Lumpur, when I came across him in a huddle of journalists outside the home of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, hoping for an interview following the jailing of her husband, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
I alone was summoned inside, where Wan Azizah, who had trained as an eye doctor in Dublin, sat me on a couch and said, “Tell me all the gossip about [former taoiseach] Charles Haughey. ” Practically everywhere I went, positive perceptions of Ireland surfaced.
Chinese leader Jiang Zemin greeted an Irish visitor by saying, “It seems everyone in Ireland has won the Nobel Prize for literature.”
In Moscow, however, during the Gorbachev era, I was put in my place by the blue-rinsed mother of a British diplomat, who expressed astonishment that Irish people were interested in what went on in the USSR.
Being the only Irish reporter in the Soviet Union had its advantages. On my own, I was feeding an insatiable curiosity among readers about the crumbling Soviet Union. This led to an anecdote former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald liked to tell, about how he tried to contact me in Moscow.
He gave my telephone number to the Irish exchange, without identifying himself or whom he was calling. “Oh Taoiseach,” said the operator, “Conor is out, he will be back this evening.” Small can be beautiful.
* This article is an extract from a FT Special Report – Ireland and the World