Friday, March 27, 2015

St. Paddy’s Day in Washington

John Fitzpatrick; Hillary Clinton; mise and Niall O Dowd

It’s hard to imagine but my first St. Patrick’s Day Speakers lunch in Washington DC was exactly 20 years ago. It was also my first meeting with President Bill Clinton.  The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in March 1995 also unexpectedly reinforced the sense of power and influence of Irish America. Having failed to stop me getting a visa to visit the USA the British Embassy in Washington in early 1995 went into overdrive to try to blunt Sinn Féin’s engagement with Irish America and with the Clinton Administration.

The Embassy lobbied to prevent me getting another visa; they lobbied to stop me getting an invitation to the Speaker’s Lunch. They lobbied to prevent the White House inviting me to the President’s St. Patrick’s Day event. They lobbied against Sinn Fein getting the right to fund raise. They lobbied Congressional and Senate members not to meet me.
The British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew left Washington convinced that the British would have their way. But he had failed to take proper account of the many political and business leaders who were now solidly behind the peace process. Congressman Ben Gilman and three other co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs, Peter King, Tom Manton and Richard Neal – Republicans and Democrats – sent a letter to President Clinton supporting my visa. Ted Kennedy phoned President Clinton and other Irish Americans rowed in behind.
The President agreed to Americans having the right to fundraise for Sinn Fein and I was invited to the Speakers lunch and the White House St. Patrick’s Day event. The British were furious. Clinton sent a letter to John Major explaining why he had done what he had done. But from March 11th and for five days the British Prime Minister refused to take a telephone call from the President of the United States.
The Speaker’s lunch is normally a very formal though relaxed affair. The Speaker of the Congress in 1995 was Newt Gingrich. He welcomed the President and the Taoiseach. Lunch was served and then the President and Taoiseach said a few words. There was a harpist in the corner playing music.
This Speakers lunch was for some of those present a more exciting event than normal. It was obvious that everyone in the room was waiting to see how the President, who I had not met before, would respond. I had expected to meet the President once the media were ushered out. But there appeared to be some problems.
So after a while I asked Peter King to tell someone in authority that I was going home. There was a flurry of activity and I was introduced to the President. Many of those present applauded. Clinton told me the British government was beating up on him and I remarked; ‘Now you know Mr. President what we have to put up with!’
Irish America had succeeded once again in using its influence effectively and positively. Under President Clinton U.S. policy toward Ireland changed to become inclusive, and based on dialogue. In the years that followed Republican Presidents followed this approach.
Last week, two decades later that approach hit a glitch. The State Department decided to ‘postpone’ a meeting it said it was due to have with me. It was all a bit odd. No meeting had been agreed. Rita O Hare was still talking to State department officials to see if and when it might happen.
It began late on the Sunday evening, a few hours after landing in New York. Richard was contacted by the BBC in Belfast to tell him that they had been informed that the meeting was cancelled. I usually do meetings with the State Department when I am in DC and they attract no media interest at all. But now the media spin was that this was a deliberate snub and was the State Department expressing its displeasure at Sinn Féin’s refusal to vote through the welfare Bill in the Assembly.
The handling of this whole affair by the State Department was bizarre. It served no purpose other than to distract attention from the main issue; the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Publicly I said so and I added that it was no skin off my nose not to meet the State Department.
Irish American politicians and leaders I met subsequently could not understand the logic of the position and were angered by the State Department decision.
Within 24 hours the State Department reversed its briefing to the media. A meeting was arranged. It was a courteous affair. I told the State Department officials that their decision and the manner in which it was made known to Sinn Féin, and to the media, was not the way business should be done and was not helpful.
Despite this we had a useful meeting. I briefed them on the current negotiations to resolve the issues around the Stormont House Agreement and told them I remain hopeful that that can be achieved.
If there is a lesson out of this it is the continuing importance and influence of Irish America. Without that there may well have been no peace process at that time.

Meeting Congressional leaders on the Hill

And as if to bookend this account of our visit to the USA on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day I attended an event in New York which saw Hillary Clinton inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame.  Her speech focused on the Irish peace process and she identified a key component of any such process, ‘everyone needs to feel the benefits of peace.’

Finally, at our meetings with congressional leaders and the state department I also reminded them of the outstanding issues arising from other agreements, including the British government’s failure to honour its commitment to hold an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane and the need for a Bill of Rights. The plight of the 50,000 undocumented Irish was also high on our agenda and I expressed our support for “a waiver policy, removing the current obstacle of the three and ten-year bar for undocumented Irish citizens in the USA”.

Having lunch with Bill Flynn and Mary Lou McDonald

Book signing in New York with Elizabeth Billups

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