By Ray O’Hanlon
GOP lawmakers who take an active interest in Irish issues are between the proverbial rock and a hard place this week as the presidential impeachment vote looms in the House of Representatives.
But with the exception of Rep. Pete King, and what looks like being just a handful of others, it appears that virtually the entire GOP side of the House will vote in favor of impeaching Bill Clinton, despite the fact that the 42nd president has devoted more time and effort to Ireland than the previous 41 combined.
Yet even King himself will not admit to considering Ireland at all in his effort to gather fellow representatives around him who might stand, Alamo-like, at Clinton’s side.
King’s response, when asked, is that Northern Ireland has nothing to do with the fact that he is leading the defense of Clinton’s presidency within the Republican Party. This despite the fact that by virtually any estimate, King himself is the most prominent ‘Irish Republican’ in Congress.
King says that he simply doesn’t think that Clinton’s wrongdoings are impeachable offenses. He said he feels that the GOP approach to the various White House scandals is shortsighted and certain to cause trouble with voters.
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In a letter published in Newsday, King cited the Federalist Papers, the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson and Watergate as the underpinning for his stance. He did not mention Clinton’s Irish record.
King himself has not been drawn out by many reporters on the Irish angle. A New York Times report last weekend included several references to King’s Irish-American roots and his activism on Northern Ireland, but Ireland was not cited as being a reason for King’s opposition to impeachment.
The Times only suggested that King was risking severe injury to himself within his own party because Clinton was popular in New York and he (King) was possibly positioning himself for a Senate run in 2000.
King, meanwhile, says he would prefer to see the president censured. But it is the Long Islander himself who is the object of censorious words. He told the Echo that his office had been receiving large numbers of calls from people who are critical of his stance and see Northern Ireland as the reason for it.
“There is a certain amount of anti-Irish bigoted stuff with a real Know Nothing tone to it,” King said.
Gilman on fence
King is Irish American by birth. Rep. Ben Gilman is not. But he too has forged a prominent record on Ireland over the years, especially in recent ones in his capacity as chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
A spokesman for Gilman, who along with King is a co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, told the Echo that the Rockland County congressman was still making his mind up on which way to vote.
But in a hint as to which way Gilman will likely eventually jump, the spokesman stressed that it was not the role of the House to decide on censure. The House was like a grand jury. Trial and punishment was the job of the Senate.
The spokesman was also quick to point out that Gilman had his own distinct record on Ireland, not least with regard to the MacBride Principles and other human rights issues.
While Gilman was still pondering, Rep. Jim Walsh, who chairs the Friends of Ireland group in Congress, had already made up his mind.
Walsh admires Clinton for his Irish efforts but he will be voting for impeachment.
“The president has done a great job on Ireland,” Walsh said in a statement issued through a spokesman.
“I know this crisis will not affect America’s support,” he added.
Meanwhile, as the Echo went to press, it was learned that Buffalo Rep. Jack Quinn, who was at one point seen as leaning toward Pete King’s censure-before-impeachment view, had decided to back his party’s pro-impeachment position.
The irony for those who follow closely Washington’s, and particularly Clinton’s efforts in pursuit of a settlement in Ireland, is that domestic considerations are far outstripping foreign policy ones — not least Ireland — at a time when Ireland is finally being taken seriously as an issue by the press and foreign policy establishment.
Ireland as an a policy issue has come a long way since Clinton’s policies with regard to the North were derided as a “Pet Boutique” project in a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman a couple of years ago.
The Times recently suggested that Clinton’s record would be heavily padded by his largely successful Irish gamble.
“The President’s hand in the fragile Irish peace effort, the stabilization of Bosnia and his promised campaign against international terrorism may yet come to seem among the most substantial parts of his legacy,” the paper said.
Dick Morris, Clinton’s estranged adviser, wrote recently in the New York Post that Clinton’s presidency was unraveling, not so much because of the Monica Lewinsky business but because the distraction it was causing was resulting in core domestic and foreign policy initiatives coming apart at the seams.
The Middle East was at the top of Morris’s foreign policy list. But Ireland came in second, ahead of North Korea, nuclear proliferation in South Asia, the Balkans, Asian recession and instability in Russia.
Last week, columnist Albert Hunt wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “even though the foreign policy establishment doesn’t consider it important, the Irish peace accord is a major accomplishment.”
But major accomplishments are being shoved aside this week in a battle that is pitting the House Democratic minority — most of it — against the Republican majority — most of it.
King, and an as yet unknown number of anti-impeachment Republicans, are standing right in the middle. But Ireland is proving to be a flimsy shield.
As one GOP source put it: “Ireland is a very small factor in a very big picture.”