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A funny thing happened on the way to the White House

March 28, 2012

By Staff Reporter

Meeting with some of Ireland's best friends in Congress.

It was Congressman Joe Crowley 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 last week.

“It’s hard to imagine that it’s 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, as readers know, is a Congress member for New York. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with Rita, our representative in the USA and with Richard.

Jim Cullen is the 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 until recently. I thank and commends him for his commitment, dedication and friendship.

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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 include 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 with them, 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 all those years ago that I first came to New York.

The previous day, at a Friends of Sinn Féin lunch with labor leaders we were joined by Martin McGuinness. Terry O’Sullivan, who is president of the Laborers 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 United States 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 Irish government has consciously sought to reach out to the global Irish through a number of initiatives and the taoiseach has been in the U.S. 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 presidential voting rights should extend to citizens living in the North.

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 this columnist getting a visa all those years ago. And later in the White House, Jean Kennedy Smith, who was U.S. 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 honor of our national saint the week before so I was able to bring Jean up to date on all these goings-on.

Then, to my great delight, who swept into sight but Oscar winners Terry and Oorlagh George. 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. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Obama received a rapturous welcome. As I told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 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.

There is still a lot of work to do for Ireland, and for the Irish people, but it’s good every so often to take stock, to celebrate, and to move on again.

And Saint Patrick’s week is a good week to do this and to remind ourselves and our friends in Irish America of all the good work that has been done in recent years and their role in making that happen.

 

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