By Jack Holland
As George W. Bush gets ready to take on the mantle of the U.S. presidency, an ardent group of Irish-American Republicans are working behind the scenes to make sure that the issue of Northern Ireland stays firmly on the White House agenda. They are confident that they can overcome the widespread perception among many Irish Americans that Republican presidents tend to take their line on Ireland from the British establishment.
"He has to pay attention to [Northern Ireland]," said Jeff Cleary, board member of Irish for Bush committee. "He has pledged to do it." Cleary who is a member of the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans, contributed to the very assertive policy statement on Northern Ireland that was revealed during the Republican Party convention in Philadelphia last summer. He also, along with Grant Lally and Brian McCarthy, drafted the policy statements on Ireland during the New York primary in March.
"What would happen if Bush ignores the issue and there’s another Omagh bombing? said the 34-year-old activist, who served for five years as an aide to New York Gov. George Pataki. "Irish Americans are going to make sure that this thing moves forward."
Cleary argues that it is false to claim that the Republican Party is less active on the Northern Ireland issue than the Democrats or is in any way pro-British. This, he argues, is more a product of the "liberal media" than an accurate reflection of his party’s record. He points to the long-time involvement of Republican Reps. Peter King and Ben Gilman on the Irish issue. He also mentioned the interest in Ireland of other Republican congressmen, like John Sweeney and Tom Reynolds.
"Gov. Pataki met with Gerry Adams before Clinton," he said. "It helped clear the way for the meeting with the president."
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In the end, Cleary believes, "We have to take the president-elect at his word. He’s made promises."
Among the promises that Bush made during the campaign was a commitment to support the "full-implementation of the Good Friday agreement" and the bill on police reform, both of which have been stalled by disagreement between the main nationalist parties and the British government. To remind the president-elect of these and other commitments, a group of congressmen have drafted a letter to him.
"We urge him to take personal control of the issue of the peace process," said King, one of those who drafted the letter, "and not let it go back to the State Department," which traditionally has been more pro-British.
"Once there, it becomes further removed from politics and becomes the province of career bureaucrats."
King believes that it was Clinton’s personal involvement that kept the issue alive. Under Clinton, it was the National Security Council, which had the main responsibility for the Northern Ireland issue, and its officials had direct access to the president. King wishes Bush would do the same.
"The only concern I’d have is that none of the people around Bush have had any experience" with the Irish question, said King, who is one of the co-chairs on Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs. "They could sign on to something without knowing the consequences."
But the congressman also admitted a worry over the Bush link to Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The university is the alma mater of the Rev. Ian Paisley and is noted for purveying a brand of fundamentalist Protestantism. Bush spoke there during the campaign, and his choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, accepted an honory degree from the establishment in 1999.
"The specter of Bob Jones is there," King said.
Susan Davies is president of the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans. She has no doubt but that Northern Ireland will remain an issue with Bush as president.
"I have no concern that it will be allowed to slip off the agenda," she affirmed.
She thought that whether it was on the NSC agenda or in the State Department was a "non-issue."
"Once it’s out of the Pandora’s box, it’s out," she said.
Her confidence, she said, is based on the informal discussions she has had with "key" people who will become part of the Bush administration.
"They are very aware of the success that the Clinton administration had" in Ireland and they want to build on that. Davies, who heads a communications company in Washington, D.C., is launching a drive to recruit more members to the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans. She said there were already 4,000, but she hopes to push that figure to 10,000 over the coming months.
"We threw a big party at the convention and 1,000 people showed up," she said. The group is planning another party soon.
She has no worries concerning issues such as the Bob Jones connection.
"This is an inclusive administration," she said, "with people from all different beliefs."