Green card in play as McCain pledges to aid Irish illegals


US:IRELAND became the focus of the US election campaign yesterday when John McCain addressed the Irish American Presidential Forum in the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Scranton and Barack Obama rolled out some of the biggest names in Irish-American politics to rubbish his opponent's credentials on Irish issues.

Mr McCain said he would continue to appoint a special envoy for Northern Ireland and promised thousands of undocumented Irish immigrants in the US that he would introduce measures to enable them to remain in the country legally.

"There are 50,000 Irish men and women who are in this country illegally at this time, who are hardworking people who want to become citizens," he said.

"And I want to assure you that we will enact comprehensive immigration reform so that we can give people - after they do certain things, obviously - a path to citizenship in this country." Mr McCain seldom mentions immigration during campaign events and he acknowledged yesterday that his support for reform had made him unpopular with Republicans and almost cost him his party's nomination. He accused Mr Obama of showing political cowardice by supporting an amendment that sunk an immigration reform bill the Republican sponsored with Democratic senator Edward Kennedy.

"To preserve that fragile coalition, I sometimes had to take votes that were not popular. Senator Kennedy took votes that were not popular. Senator Obama took a hike," he said.

Mr McCain, who is the first Republican to address the Irish American Presidential Forum since its inception in 1984, promised that the US would remain committed to supporting the political institutions in the North.

"There remains hard work ahead. As you know, there are still big problems about the police and the administration of justice. We know that that's the last hurdle, though, really the last hurdle," he said.

"I will remain committed to doing everything I can to get us through that last hurdle. It is an honour for the US to be seen as an honest broker by both parties to the Good Friday Agreement." Almost one third of Scranton's population is of Irish descent but few of those who came to the city's wood-panelled, Victorian Gothic cultural centre yesterday appeared to be preoccupied by Irish issues. When the meeting was opened to the floor, nobody asked Mr McCain about Ireland, focusing instead on jobs, health care and his running mate, Sarah Palin.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states won by John Kerry in 2004 which Mr McCain is targeting this year and a poll yesterday put him just two points behind Mr Obama in the state. Mr Obama faces a particular challenge in winning over the state's Catholics, many of whom are Irish-Americans and Mr McCain told his audience yesterday that Irish-American votes could be crucial in determining the outcome of November's election.

An hour before the Republican took the stage, however, five members of Mr Obama's "dream team" of Irish-American advisers told reporters that Mr McCain was no friend of the Irish.

"We see the Straight Talk Express now becoming the Blarney Bus," said Maryland governor Martin O'Malley.

"What he will tell people is what they want to hear rather than what his record really is." Mr O'Malley was joined by senators Patrick Leahy and Chris Dodd and congressmen Joe Crowley and Richard Neal, chairman of the congressional Friends of Ireland.

Mr Leahy recalled that Mr McCain opposed President Bill Clinton's decision to grant a visa to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams to visit the US in 1994, warning that it could damage Washington's relationship with London.

"He said it was pandering to the Irish," Mr Leahy said.

"He seemed to have no understanding of the history involved or the importance of bringing both sides together." Mr Obama's campaign stumbled last month when it released a "fact sheet" on Irish issues that cast doubt on the future of the US special envoy to the North and suggested that Washington should re-think its engagement with the political process there. Since then, Mr Obama has appointed his "dream team" of Irish-American advisers and last week, he confirmed that he would, in fact, appoint a special envoy if he is elected president.

"That question has been answered squarely," Mr Crowley said yesterday.

"Senator Obama is listening to people who have maybe a greater understanding of these issues than he does himself. There is no evidence that John McCain is doing the same."