While Senator John McCain was in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Monday addressing the Irish Presidential Forum, members of Senator Barack Obama's Irish advisory panel held a press briefing to slam the GOP nominee's prior record on Irish issues, including his opposition to the issuance of a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1994.
Participants in the Monday morning conference sought to deliver a strong message to Irish voters - don't let McCain's sweet Irish talk fool you, because his past actions don't measure up to his current words of flattery.
Senator Patrick Leahy, on the call fellow Obama Irish advisory panel members Senator Chris Dodd, Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, and Congressmen Joe Crowley and Richie Neal, recalled the heated debate over the first Adams visa, and how McCain strongly criticized President Bill Clinton for giving the go-ahead.
"History shows that it was a brilliant thing to bring Adams to America," said Leahy. "I remember how John McCain strongly opposed that. He said it was pandering to the Irish. He had no understanding of the history involved, or how important it was to bring both sides together."
McCain, added O'Malley, was more concerned with appeasing the British at the time.
But now, in the heat of a tight presidential race, McCain's old Straight Talk Express slogan "has now become the Blarney Bus," said O'Malley. "He will tell the people (in Scranton) what they want to hear, instead of the way he sees it. The truth is he's 20 years late on pivotal Irish issues."
Dodd, an early and critical supporter of the Adams visa, recalled the tense times leading up to its approval, and how the Clinton decision represented an historic change in American policy - change McCain attempted to thwart.
"He could have sided with those of us who wanted to change history," Dodd said, adding that McCain's past on Irish matters is relevant to today's campaign.
Dodd also praised Obama's running mate Joe Biden, saying he'll be a strong advocate of Irish issues.
"I have no idea where Sarah Palin is on this issue," Dodd said of McCain's running mate. "(Biden) has been critically involved for years in Ireland."
Neal, chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland group, recalled the speech McCain delivered when he was the honoree at the 2005 American Ireland Fund gala in Washington, D.C. McCain's highly politicized speech strongly criticized Sinn Fein for its links to the IRA at a time when the party was under pressure over the infamous pub shooting of Catholic Robert McCartney.
"I was at the dinner when he spoke. People were startled," said Neal. "Senator McCain has been wrong all the way. When Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern addressed a joint session of Congress he thanked us. But that's not the position John McCain has taken."
Crowley also remembered the Ireland Fund dinner as a low point for McCain and the Irish. "We listened in disgust," he said.
"I said it was like being lectured to by a substitute teacher. "John McCain was absent when it came to Ireland. He has tried to pander to the Irish with regards to immigration. But McCain is no longer seen as a leader on immigration reform. He'll tell the Irish today, don't worry, we'll have comprehensive immigration reform. But when he's in Texas he'll tell them, we'll run them out of the country."
The question of Obama's commitment to the U.S. special envoy to Ireland first initiated by Clinton and continued by President Bush shouldn't be a question at all, the panel members said.
The Obama campaign issued a controversial Irish statement last month claiming that the crisis period in Northern Ireland has passed, and questioning the need for an envoy in the future.
"Senator Obama will continue the peace envoy," O'Malley said. "Cautionary language from staff (in the statement) should not change in any way the fact that Senator Obama has stated his unequivocal support for the envoy."
Neal pointed to a new, brief Obama statement last week which affirmed that he would appoint a senior envoy to Ireland "who will build on the groundbreaking achievements of the Clinton administration and help bring the historic process to final fruition."
The envoy flap, Crowley said, should now officially be considered closed. "He's said he's appointing a senior envoy, and that squarely answers the matter," he said.
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