Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s willingness to engage herself on Ireland should she win the White House was made plain to an invited audience last week when she became the first of this year’s three presidential contenders to address an Irish American Presidential Forum.
Clinton answered six pre-supplied questions at the gathering, held at the midtown Manhattan law offices of John Dearie. She did not take any extra questions at its conclusion.
The forum, which, as it happened, came to fruition on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, was the first since 2000. By her attendance, Clinton reestablished an election year tradition stemming back to the first forum in 1984.
Clinton, who flew in from campaigning in Pennsylvania, was clearly at ease with both the questions and issues.
She was introduced to the audience by Dearie, who initiated the forum idea 24 years ago, Adrian Flannelly, whose radio show shares office space with Dearie’s firm, and Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.
Senator Clinton, displaying little sign of the wear and tear that is the expected consequence of a full tilt run at the presidency, paid tribute to the existence of the forum and drew what she described as a “direct line” between the 1992 forum, which witnessed the naissance of President Bill Clinton’s Irish policies, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and, it turn, this year’s event.
Clinton said that forum was an opportunity to talk about the extraordinary steps that had been taken with regard to Ireland, the progress that had been cemented, and also the path forward.
Clinton, referring to her own work for peace in Ireland, spoke in particular of her meeting with women from Northern Ireland both as first last and later as a senator from New York.
“For me,” she said, “a lot of it was working at the grass roots, working below the level of leadership with people who lived and worked in the various communities,” she said.
Clinton spoke of her meeting last December in Washington with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, a combination that, she said, would once have been viewed as a “fantasy at best.”
She said that she had been inspired by the fact of both men talking about routine government, the “boring important work of government,” as she put it.
Ten years after the Good Friday agreement, said Clinton, “we are clearly on the right path but we cannot become complacent, we cannot let our guard down, there are still the enemies of peace as there always are and we have to remain actively engaged in the work of peacemaking.
“When I’m president I will continue my deep commitment to Northern Ireland,” she said.
Addressing the specific questions posed to her and the other presidential candidates, Clinton said that as a strong partner for Northern Ireland she (as president) would be committed to achieving to a lasting peace and reconciliation and to supporting the Northern Ireland government, pursuing diplomatic engagement and “robust” diplomatic partnership.
With regard to appointing a highly qualified envoy to Northern Ireland Clinton responded; “I will.”
She said that she would have a White House envoy responsible to the president and tasked with assisting the president and tasked with providing diplomatic and economic support to Northern Ireland.
“We gave come so far and now we need to deal with the remaining issues on the table,” she said.
“It’s important to have a special envoy who reports directly to me rather than having to go and down the chain of command at the State Department. And having an envoy will signal my personal commitment, that it’s not something farmed out to the appropriate desk officer in the State Department but instead someone who reports directly to the president.”
With regard to a U.S. economic underpinning for the peace process, Clinton said that again she would lend to her personal and the diplomatic resources of the United States to help resolve the outstanding issues on the road to permanent peace.
She said she would work personally with the leaders of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain to ensure the full implementation of the tenets of the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements.
“I support full devolution as envisaged in the St. Andrews agreement and I believe that the transfer of policing and justice powers is a major priority that should be completed as swiftly as possible.”
Clinton said she was committed to a strong economic partnership between the United States and all of Ireland.
“A thriving economy in Northern Ireland and in the bordering counties of the Republic is an important part of building a lasting peace. Along with my secretary of commerce I will help the Northern Ireland government and business leaders explore new opportunities to attract international investment and to nurture a growing all island economy. And I will encourage Irish companies to invest here in the United States.
“At the same time, Clinton said she would continue to provide American assistance to grass roots efforts in Northern Ireland to promote economic development and improve housing, education, health care and other daily needs of people.
“You asked if I would convene a White House conference on American/Ireland within the first twenty-four months of my administration: I will. I will bring the major stakeholders together to discuss how we can strengthen and improve the economic partnership between the United States and Ireland.
“My efforts as president will build on my work as senator providing technical assistance on issues ranging from job creation to trade and agricultural policy. Following up on the U.S., Northern Ireland investment conference my administration will help coordinate a summit of mayors from the United States, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to build ties and share ideas on economic development and attracting capital.”
Clinton said she had discussed with Northern Ireland Irish leaders about the idea of Irish bonds, these along the lines of existing Israel bonds.
“I think there is an opportunity for Irish bonds. Many Irish Americans want to continue supporting the people of Ireland, all of Ireland, and there are a lot of infrastructures and of course as devolution takes place, and I understand it, funding from Westminster declines to there will be a real opening and this could be a place where the Irish American community would be particularly important and I would love to explore with you how best we could do that because I believe it would provide a steady revenue stream that would support the kind of investments that will in turn support the legitimacy, credibility and success of the government.”
Clinton said that she would also work to promote the continued building of women’s economic and political progress.
On immigration, Clinton said she believed in comprehensive and fair immigration reform.
“There are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the United States,” Clinton said.
She said that as president she would work with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform and other advocacy groups to put the undocumented on a path to legalization as part of comprehensive reform.
Clinton said that she was being asked if she would personally meet with the political leaders of Northern Ireland to hear reports on their progress.
“Of course I will,” she said.
“It will be a great pleasure to do so. They will always be welcome,” she added.
“I was asked if I would commit to visiting Ireland and Northern Ireland during my first term in office. What a hardship,” she said to loud laughter.
“I have visited Northern Ireland six times as first lady and a senator and I am always looking for an excuse to go back. So I will as president travel to Ireland and Northern Ireland to honor the strong and deep relationship between our peoples. We have shared values, common aspirations, a bond that it unbreakable and presidential visits are a special part of reinforcing that bond.”
Clinton said that hope and history had rhymed with the man from Hope, a reference to President Clinton. She said she hoped to build on that legacy.
“We have come so far and I want you to know you can count on me. This is not just a pledge, or a promise, it is a passion. I believe profoundly in this mission,” Clinton said.
“I look forward to continuing our work together in the years ahead.”