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Editorial / Periscope - Niall O'Dowd
Obama’s New Irish Counsel
September 3, 2008
SENATOR Barack Obama’s decision to appoint an Irish advisory council is a step in the right direction after the debacle of the statement from the campaign last week questioning whether there was a need for an U.S. special envoy.
That statement has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon in Irish America and indeed Irish circles. All last week spokesmen were on Irish radio and television trying to backtrack from that ill conceived and, frankly, insulting statement.
The campaign is clearly trying to make amends. The new statement issued on Labor Day notes, “Senator Obama has created this panel because as president he intends to do all the U.S. can do to help deepen the peace that so many have worked so hard to establish, and to strengthen U.S.-Irish cultural, educational, and trade ties, which are central to the identities of the United States and Ireland.
“I am delighted to be able to call upon a ‘Dream Team’ of leaders who cherish the U.S.-Irish bond as I do,” said Obama. “I look forward to putting in place policies that will fortify this indispensable relationship.”
The caliber of the individuals on the panel speaks for itself, and the mix of Senator Hillary Clinton and Obama supporters is also ideal.
The names on the list are a blue chip collection of Irish American political talent — Senators George Mitchell, Chris Dodd, Edward Kennedy and Pat Leahy, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Congressmen Joe Crowley and Richie Neal.
Mitchell needs no introduction on the topic of Ireland. Quite simply there would be no Irish peace process without him.
Ironically, his time as special envoy makes clear why such an appointment is still necessary. He single-handedly guided the parties in the North through the toughest negotiations of all that concluded with the Good Friday Agreement which now underpins the entire peace process.
Equally there would not have been a peace process without Kennedy, who convinced President Bill Clinton to take an extraordinary chance on granting Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, a first-ever visa to come to America at a time when the IRA was still very active and every major government department, from the CIA to the State Department, opposed it.
Likewise, Dodd also played a pivotal role, especially in later years when the process was often stalled and needed American intervention to keep it going. On one memorable occasion he convinced President Clinton during a golf game to end the fundraising ban on Sinn Fein in America at a critical time for the party.
O’Malley is the next generation of Irish leaders. The young Maryland governor has already distinguished himself with an interest in and commitment to Irish causes that may make him the next top leader in Irish American politics.
It would be hard to match Crowley and Neal in their commitment to Irish issues. Both have been very active in the Congressional Friends of Ireland group that Neal now heads, and both have made key trips to Northern Ireland as well as hosting Irish political leaders at vital times.
It can be hoped that the new leadership group will not confine their issues to the Irish peace process, however. Immigration is a matter of great concern to the community, and Kennedy has been an outspoken voice for proper reform leaders.
If Obama is elected the next president he will have to deal with the thorny issue of immigration reform pretty soon in his first term. The Irish need a voice at that table too.
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