Category: Archive

N.H. Primary The Irish stakes: sizing up the candidates

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

Irish Americans will be among the registered Democrats, Republicans and indeed independents who are allowed cast ballots in the New Hampshire Primary next week. The presidential race is still in its early stages but already the field of candidates is beginning to distinguish itself for its interest, or lack of, in the quest for a lasting solution to the divisions in Ireland. Here’s a look at the Democratic and Republican fields.

The Democrats

Al Gore

With the whiff of his Iowa success in his nostrils, Vice President Al Gore gallops into New Hampshire this week ready and eager to gather the votes of Democratic Irish Americans and those independents who register as Democrats for the purposes of securing a vote in this always closely watched primary.

From an Irish-American point of view, Gore is the veteran of this year’s presidential pack. He first came into view in 1988 at the Irish American Presidential Forum in New York. Throughout the Clinton years he has been portrayed as a solid back-up man to President Clinton’s groundbreaking campaign to secure a lasting settlement in Ireland. At times, Gore has stepped to the fore. He did so at the 1996 presidential forum, where he delivered a speech that was sincere in tone but also left the impression that it could have been applied to any trouble spot on earth.

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Nevertheless, Gore can expect to tap into a considerable level of support among Irish-American voters in the Granite State. On a recent weekend, buses carrying Gore supporters converged on New Hampshire for a "Rally for Gore." The event was organized by the Washington, D.C.-based lobby group Irish American Democrats and its election year offshoot, Irish Americans for Gore. Coinciding with the rally, the group released a Letterman-like 10-reason list as to why Gore should succeed Bill Clinton as president.

No. 1 reads: "Al Gore stood shoulder to shoulder with President Clinton to promote the Irish peace process."

No. 2 reads: "Al Gore pledges that peace and justice in Ireland will be a top priority in the foreign policy agenda of his administration."

Reason No. 9 is a salt rubber: "Remember when President George Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, said the White House should be off limits to Gerry Adams? Irish Americans cannot afford to go back to the bad old days and bad old ways of a Republican White House. Never again must doors be closed against the Irish."

Bill Bradley

At first glance, Bill Bradley doesn’t look like the kind of candidate who, as president, would close the door on anybody. Unlike Gore however, Bradley’s Irish track record doesn’t include endless opportunities to stand shoulder to shoulder Bill Clinton as the North takes another tentative step toward normality.

Bradley, at the same time, is not a completely darkhorse. He has expressed support for the peace process and once spoke out on the Senate floor against job discrimination at the Shorts Brothers aircraft company in Belfast. There is also his 1982 letter to the Irish National Caucus calling for a British timetable of withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

"I believe that a peaceful solution to this political situation will come only when Britain sets a timetable for withdrawal. Then the prospect of unity with Ireland will become real," Bradley wrote at the time.

That was then and this is now. Bradley — nor Gore, for that matter — is likely to be calling for a British withdrawal on the stump in New Hampshire or at any other venue, including this year’s presidential forum, set for March 5 at John Jay College in Manhattan. Some observers are suggesting that Bradley, more than Al Gore, has the kind of patience and personal touch that Bill Clinton brought so successfully to bear in having to deal with Northern Ireland’s — and often London’s — intractable politics and politicians. Clearly, however, Bradley needs to speak out more on Ireland in the coming weeks. Only then will Irish American voters start to look closely at what kind of substance and style Bradley might bring with him through an open White House door.

The Republicans

George W. Bush

George W. Bush, the other Iowa victor, does not follow the line once taken by his father. Back in 1983, then-Vice President Bush visited Ireland and spoke of the U.S. government’s support for a joint effort to end the "tragic crisis" in Northern Ireland. The joint effort Bush-the-elder envisioned did not, however, include the Reagan administration taking any direct role. That effort, in Bush’s view, was the business of the Irish and British governments.

Seventeen years later, Bush-the-younger is running for president in the wake of eight years of direct U.S. involvement. Given the degree of success achieved by the Clinton White House, it was not entirely surprising that Bush would go out of his way to at least cover himself with regard to Ireland. He began to do so last fall with a 36-word statement: "I hope that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland find a way to overcome the remaining obstacles and finally achieve a lasting peace. The United States should do everything it can to help make this happen."

Given the events of recent years, that doesn’t look like very much, and so far it’s just about all Bush has said about Ireland. However, given the general lack of attention paid by top GOP presidential hopefuls over the years, George W.’s few bon mots, particularly the second sentence, stand out as almost a revolutionary manifesto in GOP terms. No Republican presidential candidate has ever turned up at an Irish-American presidential forum in New York. None turned up four years ago in New Hampshire when a coalition of Irish-American organizations held a forum at the University of New Hampshire. The organizers of this year’s New York forum are again hopeful that a GOP candidate attends. Bush would certainly do.

John McCain

When the San Francisco-based human rights group, Northern Ireland Alert, issued its second annual "Northern Ireland Congressional Scorecard" in August 1998, it called for the defeat of three U.S. senators in the next relevant election "due to their lack of interest in Northern Ireland, a primary United States foreign policy initiative." One of the three senators was Arizona’s John McCain.

Northern Ireland Alert was a little wide of the mark, however. McCain had previously express interest in the North, albeit in negative terms.

Back in 1996, with the presidential contest between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole gathering momentum, McCain launched a strong attack on Clinton’s Irish policies in the publication Foreign Policy"

He wrote in part: "Motivated by romantic, anachronistic notions of Irish republicanism, some prominent Irish Americans persuaded the president [over the objection of the State Department] to jump headfirst into the Northern Ireland problem, severely straining our relations with London.

"The president gave a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army [IRA], a terrorist organization that has been for the last 30 years implacably hostile not only to Great Britain but to our own democratic values."

McCain concluded that the Clinton administration’s involvement in Northern Ireland revealed the "perils of misconceiving the relationship between domestic and foreign policy."

McCain has since had reason to take note of the perils of casting judgment before a policy’s course is fully run.

A few months after his Foreign Policy assessment, McCain got into a heated discussion with fellow Republican Rep. Peter King at a dinner party in the British Embassy in Washington. It was a rough start to a relationship that has almost blossomed since then. McCain has been getting a crash course from King on the Irish view of the Irish Question. The two have publicly swapped their respective books, King’s being a story about the IRA that humanizes rather than demonizes, McCain’s being an autobiography that tells of his ancestors fleeing two countries, Scotland and Ireland. It’s a family story prompted by the onetime foreign policy of his favorite Cold War ally in London. Irony, then, might not be McCain’s strongest suit. Nevertheless, King claims that McCain is now considering making a trip to Northern Ireland with him.

McCain, who concentrates heavily on foreign policy issues in the first place, would learn much on such a trip. He would also do himself no harm by turning up at the New York forum in March. The welcome would at least be far warmer than the one he once got from the North Vietnamese.

Steve Forbes

Republican Steve Forbes was first off the mark last summer as a candidate endorsing the nascent power-sharing arrangement at Stormont. He also bankrolled an Irish-American fact-finding visit to the North. At the same time, Forbes is a close pal of Margaret Thatcher and that will make Irish-American voters a little wary of the man on the Irish issue.

The Field

Everybody who wants to be president is invited to the New York presidential forum. That includes GOP presidential hopefuls Allen Keyes, Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch. Of the three, only Hatch, who as the Echo went to press was mulling withdrawal from the race, has a discernible record on Irish issues, although not one that could be described as groundbreaking. A member of the Friends of Ireland group in Congress, Hatch backed a Sen. Chris Dodd’s bill congratulating all parties in the peace process.

The Reform Party, which does not hold primaries, is a mixed bunch in Irish terms. Pat Buchanan is the sole Irish American. He urged a continued visa for Gerry Adams in 1996 despite the renewed IRA bombing campaign in Britain. Donald Trump is an apparent Adams fan and has turned up at Friends of Sinn Féin events in New York. Yet, in his latest book, "The America We Deserve," Trump includes a chapter on foreign policy but fails to mention Ireland at all. Jesse Ventura, governor of Minnesota, has a peace process of his own on his hands — with Irish Americans who were furious over his remarks about the streets of St. Paul being designed by drunken Irish.

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