Irish America clout real and hard won
Hillary Clinton’s moves on Northern Ireland indicate a deep interest and not a downgrade, writes NIALL O'DOWD
I TAKE very strong issue with the piece by Niall Stanage – “Clinton saga highlights ludicrous notions about importance of Irish in America” (August 8th). I am the person he is referring to as spreading an “unsourced” story about Hillary Clinton becoming effectively the special envoy to Northern Ireland. I feel he has made an unwarranted and utterly wrong series of allegations about me and Irish America. His screed is so full of inaccuracies as to be laughable for any knowledgeable Irish American observer.
The truth is Hillary Clinton has stated she will handle Northern Ireland herself and not appoint a political envoy but will appoint an economic envoy. I have spoken to her twice about the envoy role since she became secretary of state. The first was soon after she was named by President Obama but not confirmed. We spoke for half an hour about the Irish issue and the role of the envoy. I mentioned that a future Tory government could be problematic as David Cameron had stated he was a confirmed unionist and it might be an important American role to balance that position.
The second was a few months ago when she granted me an interview (during which she first revealed that Ireland had agreed to take two Guantánamo prisoners) and we went off the record to discuss the envoy situation and she asked what my views were. I stressed that there was an important economic piece also to the American role but not to lose sight of the extraordinary insight she herself had on Northern Ireland issues.
She has since also made clear to several key Irish Americans that she will shortly appoint an economic envoy feeling that is a very important role in terms of helping get the Northern Irish economy moving.
The reason I broke the story recently on my website and on Morning Ireland about Clinton handling the role herself was because I believe an economic envoy appointment is imminent. I have spoken to the person who I believe will be appointed and he has confirmed that he is indeed the person under consideration. He said his clear understanding from her was that Clinton will be personally handling the Northern Irish political situation as it arises. That is also the understanding of several leading figures in Washington who deal with Northern Ireland, as well as some party leaders in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Far from being unsourced the story was very well sourced from two separate direct participants and I have no doubt it will turn out to be completely factual.
Stanage fails to understand Irish America. He cites Clinton as stating that she “did not see the need for someone full-time” as an envoy as reason to presume she has no real interest in it. There has never been a full-time envoy since George Mitchell nor is there ever likely to be one and no one has ever called for one. The fact that Clinton will personally be handling the issue as against lower-level state department personnel is a huge step up, not a step down, as Stanage tries to indicate. In addition there will be an economic envoy – another major step which he is clearly clueless about.
With regard to Irish America: Stanage is not long enough in America to understand what occurred during the peace process here. It was Irish America which won the visa for Gerry Adams which helped create the IRA ceasefire. It was Irish America which first put forward the envoy proposal which became the George Mitchell initiative and most importantly it was Irish America which first reached out to then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to become involved in Ireland. How this signals a lack of clout is a mystery.
He tosses off the usual cockamamie quotes about no Irish Americans ever voting en masse on Irish issues. Whoever said they did? What we in Irish America have done is harnessed support around positions of interest to us such as immigration reform and Northern Ireland. To that end we have cultivated important relationships through fundraising, extensive canvassing at elections and creating personal contacts with many key figures. We are no different in that respect to any other ethnic group.
As for present-day clout, Stanage obviously does not know about the Irish Government Diaspora conference in Dublin in September which will see over 100 top Irish American businessmen and women from the US come to Ireland to discuss the ties between the two countries and the economic benefits that can accrue.
The Diaspora conference is modelled on one that we at Irish Americamagazine have hosted these past few years in conjunction with UCD. Is this what Stanage refers to as a dead-end strategy having Fortune 500 executives in large numbers come to Ireland at a critical time?
He also disparages our work on behalf of the undocumented Irish. Probably that’s easy to do for an Oxford University educated chap who has never experienced the desperation our illegal community feels at this time. Quixotic our quest could well be but it will not stop us trying to help our fellow Irish men and women live normal lives in America.
Niall O’Dowd is the founder of the Irish Voicenewspaper in New York. Noel Whelan is on leave