John McCain is an avid Roddy Doyle fan.
This sounds like a strange opening line for a profile of the oft-perplexing United States senator from Arizona who might someday be president.
But John McCain is a man who frequently surprises.
And what is surprising not a few Irish Americans of late is McCain’s growing involvement in America’s Irish story, one that mirrors his interest in Irish storytellers such as Dubliner Doyle.
McCain’s emergence into Irish-American consciousness has been a slow burn, a process that stands in contrast to the “volcanic” temper ascribed to the man by the Arizona Republic newspaper back in 2000, the year that McCain ran for president and pummeled George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
McCain first wandered into Irish-American sights as a critic of President Clinton’s early Irish policies.
He loomed again over the Irish-American horizon in 1999 when his bestseller memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” rooted the McCain family in the soil of County Antrim.
From that point on, John Sidney McCain was a proclaimed member of Irish America, Scots-Irish branch.
McCain displays many of the characteristics that people expect from that tribe.
When he was roaming the countryside in 2000 he did so in a bus called the Straight Talk Express.
It might have been more accurately described as the tongue lashing special. John McCain is hard-edged, flinty and clearly does not suffer fools lightly.
No surprise then that he has frequently raised hackles, Irish-American ones included.
When the San Francisco-based human rights group, Northern Ireland Alert, issued its “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 was John McCain.
This was unfair to the then two-term Republican. McCain was interested in the Northern Ireland troubles.
It was just that he wasn’t particularly interested in the Irish republican analysis of them.
The NIR volley stemmed from words written by McCain during the 1996 Clinton/Dole presidential campaign in the publication, Foreign Policy.
McCain had described the conflict in Northern Ireland as “a sad and tragic affair” in a country to which many Americans traced their ancestry.
“Yet it has never, even remotely, affected our security interests in Europe,” McCain wrote.
“Rather, the conflict has engaged only our concern that pluralistic societies live peacefully and our despair for the suffering that terrorism has inflicted on our oldest and most trusted ally, Great Britain.”
And he continued: “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. When that organization resumed its terrorism campaign in Great Britain, President Clinton again issued Adams a visa without even securing from him a simple denunciation of the taking of innocent life. Indeed, the United States received very little in exchange for its concession to Sinn Fein.”
McCain concluded: “With his credibility now substantially at risk in Northern Ireland, the president finds himself stuck in a conflict that has frustrated the best efforts of many a skilled statesman.”
By granting Adams a visa after the IRA’s return to violence and deciding to reinforce his earlier “mistaken involvement” in the Northern Ireland problem, Clinton, argued McCain, had “deepened the risk to his credibility and further damaged relations with our British allies.”
A few months later, McCain got into a heated discussion on Northern Ireland with fellow Republican Peter King at a dinner party in the British Embassy in Washington. But what began as heat would become fruitful.
Four years later, when he himself was running for the White House, McCain was telling reporters that he was “pleased with the progress of the peace process.” And though he did not win the presidency, McCain’s interest in Ireland now appeared set.
In early 2001, a group of Republican legislators and Irish-American GOP activists sent a letter to President Bush urging him to directly involve himself in the search for a lasting peace in the North.
The letter urged Bush to sustain Bill Clinton’s Irish policies as a top presidential priority.
“Your predecessor saw that career bureaucrats were not able or willing to provide the political heft on this issue necessary to achieve the real breakthroughs in the Peace Process,” the letter to Bush stated.
“Only after he moved lead responsibility for this issue from the State Department to the National Security Council was President Clinton able to give a clear indication of how important of an issue this would be for his administration.
“A similarly clear and convincing statement of this issue’s political importance to your administration would be an early and welcome sign of your intention to continue America’s unbiased involvement in the peace process.”
The letter was signed by seven members of the House of Representative and two U.S. senators. One of the two was John McCain.
But even if McCain had turned a corner with regard to the principle of a U.S. role in Ireland, that famous glare of his was still fixed, critically, on the Irish Republican view.
This was starkly evident in March, 2005 when McCain rose to accept an award from the American Ireland Fund at its annual dinner in Washington, D.C.
What followed came directly from the back seat of the Straight Talk Express.
“No one can honestly claim today that the IRA is anything better than an organized crime syndicate that steals and murders to serve its members’ personal interests,” McCain barked.
The IRA, said McCain, were “cowards.”
Gerry Adams was in the audience. So was Bertie Ahern. McCain later justified his no-holds-barred attack as being necessary to advance the peace process.
Nobody argued, not there, not that night.
What was more notable than McCain’s words that night, however, was the fact that a politician who had once sniped from the Irish-American fringes was now commanding center stage.
Just a few years previously, during a campaign stop in Vermont, McCain had been unable to answer a question as to the identity of the Irish prime minister. The best he had been able to come up with was that it used be Charles Haughey.
Five years on, McCain had the podium while the correct answer, Bertie Ahern, sat in the audience listening and applauding.
But even as he was training his gimlet eye towards Northern Ireland one more time that night, McCain was also turning his attention to another issue of perennial interest to Irish America: immigration reform.
McCain would soon afterwards join Ted Kennedy in formulating a bill that is now seen as the main hope for the undocumented Irish – no matter what their views on the North.
Indeed, it is to McCain that Irish eyes will be mostly turning in the coming days.
He is, crucially, a member of the majority party in Congress and will be facing his onetime antagonist, Peter King, in the debate intended to blend the varied and contradictory reform ideas coming out of both the Senate and House of Representatives.
This time, however, it will be McCain who will seem like the softer touch.
Few would have predicted a decade ago that so much of Irish America’s future would be resting in the hands of the senior senator from Arizona.
But this has now come to pass.
The 2006 John McCain has been a multiple visitor to Ireland and frequent guest at Irish diplomatic and philanthropic events.
The Roddy Doyle fan is in the van of the immigration reform wing on Capitol Hill, is committed to securing an earned legalization path for the undocumented and, should he seek the presidency in 2008, is certain to snap up a very respectable number of Irish American votes.
“Certainly the Irish American Republicans see Senator McCain as a leader, not only in our party, but in our community and on the issues important to our community,” said Brian McCarthy, chairman of the political action group, Irish American Republicans.
Who, a decade ago, would have imagined such a turn?