Monday, March 26, 2012
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE WHITE HOUSE.
Briefing Congressional leaders
It was Joe Crawley who reminded me. Then the funny thing was nearly everyone else said more or less the same thing as we bumped into them on the way to the White House.
‘It’s hard to imagine that its seventeen years since you first came to the USA’. Joe said.
We were at a well attended briefing with Congress members on Capitol Hill. Myself, Richard, Rita O Hare and Jim Cullen.
Joe is a Congress member for New York. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with Rita, our Representative in the USA and with Richard. Jim Cullen is the new recently appointed President of the Friends of Sinn Féin in the USA. He has big shoes to fill. The last and first person to hold that post was Larry Downes. Larry did a brilliant job setting up Friends of Sinn Féin and leading it in the States until recently. This blog thanks and commends him for his commitment, dedication and friendship.
Jim Cullen will bring his own special qualities to this vitally important work. We all wish him well and I look forward to working with Jim in the time ahead.
Which brings me back to the briefing on Capitol Hill. Some of those present have kept faith with the Irish cause for decades. They included Peter King and Richie Neil, Elliot Engel and other stalwarts. Rita and I gave them an update on the current situation in Ireland and raised a number of issues including the plight of the undocumented Irish.
‘A great deal of progress since the first time you came here.’ Richie said as we mapped out what needs to be done.
That’s when Joe reminded us that that was seventeen years ago when I first came to New York. Hardly seems like it.
Terry O Sullivan; mise and Jimmy Hoffa
The previous day at a Friends of Sinn Féin lunch with Labour leaders we were joined by Martin McGuinness. Terry O Sullivan who is President of the Labours International Union of North America and Joseph Smith, our hosts, uplifted us with their enthusiasm.
This year ten current and former Presidents and Secretary Treasurers of the biggest unions in the USA came along with others to be briefed on the situation in Ireland and to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Along with Terry were James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters union; Robert Scardelletti, National President of the Transport and Communications Union; Kinsey Robinson, President of the Roofers Union; Sean McGarvey, Secretary –Treasurer of BCT; A.L. Monroe retired President of the Painters Union; Barbara Easterling, retired Secretary-General of the Communication Workers of America; John Flynn, retired President of the Bricklayers Union; John Hegarty National President of the Postal Mail Handlers Union; and Larry Hanley, National President of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
I urged them to raise with the Irish government their participation in its planned Constitutional Convention.
The previous week the government acknowledged that voting rights for Irish passport holders in Presidential elections will be on the agenda for the constitutional convention. While this is a welcome development it doesn’t go far enough. The diaspora, especially Irish America, has played a crucial role in encouraging the peace process and in bringing jobs to the island of Ireland.
The government has consciously sought to reach out to the Global Irish through a number of initiatives and the Taoiseach has been in the USA several times in recent months seeking to woo business leaders to invest in the state.
The Global Irish want to support Ireland. The Irish government should go beyond platitudes and reciprocate the diaspora’s desire to help by connecting it back into Ireland in a practical way through, for example, the extension of Presidential voting rights to passport holders.
It is also sensible that any extension of President voting rights should extend to citizens living in the north.
Senator Pat Leahy
After the briefing with the congressional leaders I met Senator Pat Leahy in his office. He reminded us of the engagement with President Clinton which led to this column getting a visa all those years ago. And later in the White House Jean Kennedy Smith, who was US Ambassador to Dublin at the time, looking well and in great form, asked after Father Alec Reid.
By chance Father Alec and I spent an hour walking and singing songs of old Dublin in honour of our national saint the week before so I was able to bring Jean up to date on all these goings-ons.
Then to my great delight who swept into sight but Oscar winners Terry George and Oorlagh. I saw their film The Shore just before it won Oscar fame and I was captivated by it. Since then I have been encouraging everyone to watch it. The Shore is a great story and a beautifully made film. Well done to all involved.
The White House was packed. The Taoiseach and President Obama received a rapturous welcome.
The following morning I met Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. I told her that the Obama party might not go on as long into the wee hours as it did when she and her husband were the hosts but it is still mighty craic. And why not? The man from Moneygall is justifiably proud of his Irish roots. And so he should be.
Our discussions ranged across the state of the economies north and south, including the severe cuts to the block grant imposed by the British government; the transfer of fiscal powers from London to Belfast; outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement and the need for greater co-operation and harmonisation north and south.
We also spoke about the role of the Irish diaspora, voting in Irish Presidential elections for Irish passport holders living abroad, and the upcoming Constitutional Convention being organised by the Irish government.
I expressed to her my concerns at the failure of the British government to engage properly with the process and a number of specific failures by it to implement the Good Friday Agreement.
And then on Wednesday evening we were on our way back to Belfast. It was a short tiring couple of days during which my jet lag didn’t quite catch up with me.
St. Patrick’s week is an important opportunity to engage with Irish America, to take stock, to celebrate and to move on again. There is still a lot of work to do for Ireland and we will need the help of the Irish diaspora in the time ahead to complete that journey.