CONGRESSMAN James Walsh, who has served in Congress for 20 years, announced last Thursday that he would not seek re-election in November.Walsh, 60, spoke to the Irish Voice on Tuesday about his decision, his involvement in the Irish peace process and his future plans. "I have loads of time on my hands now to talk," he laughed during a phone call.Already having several offers to sit down and talk about future possible jobs, Walsh, a former Peace Corps volunteer and teacher said, "There are lots of interesting things to do. I could work in government relations."I also taught in a university in telecommunications before this job. I may work in Syracuse or Washington or both. Time will tell, I guess."Walsh, who hopes to spend more time with his wife DeDe - a vigorous supporter of breast cancer research and treatment as well as community-based and federally funded relief for battered women and teenage mothers over the years - and children Jed, 31, Ben, 28, and Maureen, 24, described his decision as a "quality of life" choice. "I've been here for 20 years. I've been in pubic office for 31 so it's really time to make a change," he said.Walsh, whose Irish roots hail from Tipperary and Mayo, was responsible for the Walsh visa program passed by Congress in 1998, reauthorized in 2004 and which will come to an end this year. The visas, which were part of the peace process, allowed citizens of Northern Ireland and border counties to live and work in the U.S. States for three years with the aim of learning an applicable trade and to experience life in a multi-cultural society. Speaking about the visas and its benefits, Walsh said, "They helped hundreds and hundreds of young Irish men and women learn a new profession. At the same time there was a very key component to it - conflict resolution and the idea not only to live in a society where it really doesn't matter what your religion is."Walsh, who proudly serves as co-chair of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Ireland and is past chair of the Friends of Ireland, admitted that his first visit to Ireland was in 1995 when he accompanied President Bill Clinton as the head of the congressional delegation sent to work on the Irish peace process."I really didn't know much about Ireland before my involvement in the peace process," said Walsh.House Speaker at the time Newt Gingrich asked Walsh to become chairman of the Friends of Ireland, a position that no Republican had ever held before. "I said sure, absolutely, I'll take it on," Walsh recalled.And so he did, thus paving the way for his crucial involvement in the peace process. One of Walsh's fondest memories of his first visit to Ireland was the plane he traveled on from the U.S. "We flew to Ireland in John F. Kennedy's Air Force One and I had his cabin. Imagine that, I slept in JFK's bed, although I didn't sleep a wink with the excitement of it all," he confessed. Walsh, who first won election to the House in 1988 after more than a decade on the Syracuse Common Council, clearly remembers stepping on Irish soil for the first time. "To see Ireland for the first time when everybody came together for President Clinton's trip and for the hope and optimism that was there was beyond my wildest dreams," he remembers.Describing his feelings for Ireland now as "being absolutely hooked," Walsh has been back to the land of his grandparents 15 times since, mostly for inter parliamentary meetings during the lead up to the peace process.But he did find time to explore the country. "One of my favorite stories as a child was my grandfather telling me about how he used to fish in Mayo when he was a boy," Walsh says.Following in his grandfather's footsteps, Jim and DeDe hired a car, went to Mayo and went fishing. On another trip, the Walsh family also visited Tipperary where a family relation brought them to see the family homesteads.Walsh was presented with the 2002 Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations for his longtime work in promoting the Peace Process. He was also received the Flax Trust Award in 1997 and the Bobby Sands Award in 1998 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in his hometown of Onondaga. He was named as one of Irish America magazine's Top 100 Irish Americans on several occasions.Now that he will have a lot more time on his hands after his retirement, which will come into effect in January 2009, Walsh plans to continue visiting Ireland. "It's in my blood now" he laughs.
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