Ireland’s pulling power in the USA
Andersonstown News Thursday 20th of March 2009
By Máirtín ó Muilleoir in the White House
When you enter the White House, the security guards advise you to watch the step outside the east entrance.
Good advice for all of us who entered the Obama homestead on Tuesday evening for the St Patrick’s Day reception, but especially useful to those of the unionist persuasion who find themselves stepping into another universe.
For in Washington D.C. on St Patrick’s Day, there is only one Ireland. Diverse, certainly, modern, definitely, but also fiercely Irish. First Minister Peter Robinson couldn’t rise to wear the green this special day, eschewing the Kelly Green ties for a more sober red variety, but even a colourblind man galloping past on a horse would have seen the pulling power of Ireland in the capital of the world’s most powerful country.
And now they’re talking Irish in the White House too. Taoiseach Brian Cowen said Barack Obama had made a good fist of his first Irish lesson, learning to say “Is féidir linn” – “Yes, we can” — over lunch. And yes, Obama’s first Irish words are on tape; he’s a fast student. In the White House, Vice-President Joe Biden recited the old Irish proverb “Unity is strength” (“Ní neart go cur le chéile”).
It’s not that the Americans aren’t aware of the ‘special relationship’ with Britain. It’s just that on St Patrick’s Day, everyone with Irish heritage enjoys beating up on the Brits a little. Vice-President Biden got into the mood. He told the White House audience that “St Patrick” was the password used by Washington’s men when they forced the British to evacuate Washington on our Patron Saint’s Day in 1776!
President Obama was clearly revelling in his new-found status as Ireland’s favourite son. He only discovered last year that his great-great-grandfather was from Co Offaly — pity I didn’t know that when I was standing in Chicago’s famously Irish southside, he lamented — but his effusive demeanour spoke of a man who saw only benefits in forging closer links with Ireland. He will not only stand with the peacemakers as we face our latest assault on the peace process, but he wants to take the Irish experience of moving from war-war to jaw-jaw and use it elsewhere.
Be sure that the experience of the Irish peace process will be factored into all America’s foreign forays from here on. And this is an engaged White House, back in the control of the traditionally pro-Irish unity Democrats, which plans to build the peace process after eight years of ennui under George W. Expect a Special Envoy on Northern Ireland to be appointed next week, working to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but watch out also for the selection of a Business Envoy to the North, someone who will have have learnt from the Irish experience in the USA — one which sees discrimination as the enemy of progress. Or as President Obama put it: “Through tragedy and triumph, despite bigotry and hostility, and against all odds, the Irish created a place for themselves in the American story.”
That’s a message which resonates with the A-list of politicians who raised a glass to St Patrick in the White House and who now find themselves back on the equality and justice beat and raring to go. And, of course, whatever Irish issues Obama gets, he gets equal opportunity.
At times, the reception was like Madame Tussauds. In one corner Senator John Kerry stood talking to Hillary Clinton, in another Barack Obama was signing autographs, at the banquet table Congressman Donald Payne — a frequent visitor to Garvaghy Road — was stabbing the corned beef and cabbage rolls with a fork, while posing for photos with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness was the most powerful union leader in Irish America, John Sweeney. And blessing the entire congregation was that lion of Irish America, Fr Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus.
Heady stuff. In fact, mesmerising for someone like me who believes Irish America can unlock the true potential of our peace process to ensure dividends flow to those who suffered the most during the years of warfare.
Which is probably why, as I left the White House chatting with Congressman Peter King, who first came to West Belfast to attend the funeral of Kieran Doherty, that I almost slipped on the step. Until the guards reminded me to watch my step, just as they reminded everyone else.