Grab the attention of a presidential candidate and your cause might someday have a chance.
Grab the attention of the President of the United States and your cause actually has a chance.
As the Troubles in Northern Ireland grew ever more violent in the 1970s, concerned Irish Americans began to look more and more towards the White House as a possible deal maker and deadlock breaker.
But while incumbent presidents might well have been aware of events in Ireland, there was one major blocking force against an intervention: the special relationship with Britain.
There was also a second obstacle, not so obvious perhaps, but very much there.
And that was the Irish government’s suspicion of Irish American sympathies and motivations.
If the White House wanted to check out the consequences of an action beyond words condemning violence, it only had to consult London and Dublin.
And the response from both would be roughly a match: thanks but no thanks, stay away, back off.
Irish American activists who argued that Northern Ireland was more than just a security issue, more than just a black and white collision of good guys and bad guys, could readily muster sympathetic responses from locally elected politicians, and indeed some members of Congress.
But the White House, the American presidency, always seemed to be out of reach.
It seemed so because it was.
But that did not mean that Irish America would refrain from reaching out its hand – a hand that, at first, would be bitten.
As the Troubles grew darker and deeper and as Irish Americans began to grow more active and agitated, it was inevitable that presidential politics would become more of a debating ground.
Richard Nixon was in office when the Troubles began to make world headlines.
Nixon had Irish Quaker roots but he wasn’t about to become entangled in the root causes of the growing violence in his part-ancestral homeland.
At one point, his Secretary of State, William Rogers, went so far as to describe as “outrageous” a suggestion by Senator Edward Kennedy that the U.S. could act as a mediator in Northern Ireland.
Had Kennedy suggested invading the North it would be hard to imagine Rogers reaching for a more critical and dismissive adjective.
A few years later, and as a candidate for the presidency, Jimmy Carter uttered words that were a clear sign of a possible new take on the north and its woes.
But it would not be Carter himself who would give effect to those words. On October 26, 1976, in Pittsburgh, Carter responded thus to representations from the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Fr. Sean McManus of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus: “It is a mistake for our country’s government to stand quiet on the struggle of the Irish for peace, for the respect of human rights, and for unifying Ireland.”
Not surprisingly, this statement caused uproar.
A later “Confidential” report from the British Embassy in Washington, which was sent in April, 1980 to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among others, would refer to “Carter’s unfortunate remarks on Northern Ireland during the 1976 election campaign.”
Carter the president, as it turned out, had been more cautious than Carter the candidate when it came to the tangled Irish/British weave.
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, had Irish roots rather more apparent than Richard Nixon’s. But his commitment to the special relationship with Britain overwhelmed any emotional attachment to the old sod and his extra special relationship with Margaret Thatcher precluded and significant independent U.S. action on Ireland.
Reagan was supportive of closer co-operation between Dublin and London but when it came to the North he was content to keep his distance. Even before his election in 1980, when a few green-tinged words might have done him no harm with those Irish Americans voters increasingly concerned by events in Ireland, Reagan made his personal neutrality quite clear.
“I have no views on Irish unity,” he told the Irish Times in October, 1979.
The same could not be said about all those concerned Irish Americans.
And as the Reagan years passed and Troubles rolled on those views became stronger and required a new outlet.
Enter John Dearie, New York State Assemblyman, a Democrat, very tall and impossible to miss in a crowd, or a crowded room.
Dearie would convene the first ever Irish American Presidential Forum in the election year of 1984.
But before that first forum, which would take place in June, the year made infamous in advance by George Orwell would get off, in Irish American eyes, to a very surprising start.
At the year’s opening, the man who many Democrats reckoned would carry the party’s standard in the November showdown with Reagan was Senator Gary Hart.
The Irish National Caucus had been busy again and the year was but two days old when Hart responded to the INC with a statement. It was dated January 2.
In it, Hart stated that the complex and centuries-old socioeconomic divisions in the North of Ireland could not be healed overnight, nor could they be cured by force of arms, by violence, or by shortsighted neglect.
Said Hart in his statement: “Admittedly, the search for a solution often appears hopeless, but this is only because the wrong questions are being asked.
“The debate should no longer center over who is responsible for this or that violence; condemning symptoms does nothing to cure the disease.
“One must instead ask how it is possible to eliminate the very cause of the violence in order to secure a just and lasting solution to the conflict.
“All electoral initiatives in the past have failed for one fundamental reason: they have not taken into account the democratic wishes of the people of Ireland as a whole.
“The best way, and in fact, the only way to establish a lasting peace is within a democratic All-Ireland context. Regardless of long fostered socio-economic divisions, the fact must be recognized that Ireland is essentially one nation.
“With the acceptance of this historical fact, the first step on the road to a long overdue peace in that troubled land will have been taken.
“As Americans, we share rich cultural and political ties with the peoples of Britain and Ireland; we are therefore in an ideal position to encourage, as a common friend, a peaceful and just resolution. It is my sincere wish that in these years ahead the United States will seize upon this opportunity to play a noble role in ending this tragic conflict, and in creating a new spirit of cooperation between the great peoples of both islands.”
This was a remarkable statement and many Irish Americans would take particular note of the “noble role” assertion, vague though it was.
Hart’s presidential dream, however, would meet an ignoble end. But in one of those interesting historical twists, Hart would assume a noble role of his own as Secretary of State John Kerry’s representative to the Northern Ireland peace process.
As 1984 progressed and Gary Hart exited the presidential race, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, emerged as the likely Democratic candidate to take on Reagan in November.
In March, John Dearie would come up with the idea of Irish peace ribbons for marchers in the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
He then Set out to organize and Irish American Political/Presidential Forum that would be open to all candidates, Democratic, Republican and Independent, in the run-up to the election.
Dearie would late say that organizing the forum was “impossibly difficult.” But he was dogged and had connections.
In June, he would secure the attendance of Vice President Walter Mondale at a forum that would take place is a most unlike venue – a beach club in the Bronx.
The forum was attended by a handful of local political activists. Mondale endorsed the idea of a U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, pinned on a peace ribbon and went on to lose the election.
Still, the envoy idea was now well and truly out there.
It would be out there again in 1988 when Democratic rivals, Governor Michael Dukakis and Senator Al Gore, spoke at forum number two in a Manhattan hotel – a somewhat chaotic general press event with an Irish angle to it - and said things that raised the hopes of Irish Americans for a future presidential intervention.
Rev. Jesse Jackson had promised to attend but had fallen sick. Dearie and others later met privately with him to discuss Ireland.
Though the forum was an open invitation, Republicans were still keeping their distance.
Nevertheless, 1988 would provide a glimmer of GOP interest, the George H.W. Bush campaign providing written answers to a series of questions posed by the Irish Echo.
This was interest, yes, but Bush was not offering anything close to direct U.S. intervention in Northern Ireland.
Such an offer would come in 1992 at forum number three, attended by Governors Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton, Democrats both.
The forum was nearly a non-start but ended up taking place in a Manhattan hotel on a Sunday evening, two days before the New York Democratic primary.
And it would provide the long hoped-for breakthrough.
Both men pledged, should they be elected president, to send an envoy to Northern Ireland, to grant a U.S. visa to Gerry Adams and to support MacBride Principles fair employment legislation.
Such was the great leap forward (the event was filmed and can be seen on C-Span’s archives under “1992 Irish American Presidential Forum”) that it took several days for the import of the uttered words to sink in with the organizers and those who attended.
When Clinton won the New York primary his words not only sank in, they landed in the politicized Irish American consciousness with a loud thump.
And, ultimately, they would be words that Bill Clinton would honor.
Al Gore, now Clinton’s vice president, would attend the fourth forum in 1996, an event now being organized by members of both parties and that year held in another Manhattan hotel, though one that occupied the site of what had once been the hospital where Eamon de Valera had been born.
The Good Friday Agreement was still two years away, so the forum yet retained an air of urgency and importance.
Gore knew how to reassure.
He would display his talents again in 2000 at forum number five.
Gore is the only politician to have attended three fora.
"Irish American Presidential Forum, 2000" was held at John Jay College in Midtown Manhattan.
The event was organized on a bipartisan basis by now former Democratic Assemblyman Dearie, GOP congressman Peter King, and Democratic congressman, Joe Crowley.
The three, in a statement at the time, said the forum would provide an opportunity for presidential candidates of both parties to think seriously about America’s role and relationship to Ireland and Northern Ireland and to respond to the issues paramount to the Irish-American community across the U.S.
"All candidates of both major parties, Republican and Democrat, are being invited, as well as candidates of the Reform Party, including Patrick Buchanan and Donald Trump," the three said in a statement.
"Since one of these candidates will be the post-President Clinton White House occupant, this forum will be the most critical since candidate Bill Clinton, in April 1992, at that year’s forum, committed himself to granting a visa to Gerry Adams and an active American participation in the Northern Ireland peace process,” the statement said.
That post-Clinton president would be George W. Bush and he would continue with Clinton’s ground breaking Irish policies.
It was this bipartisan backdrop on Ireland that was in large part responsible for the forum taking a hiatus in 2004 though the party tickets dis issue statements.
Four years later, Irish American community leaders were seeking to rekindle the forum flame.
“There has to be a forum this year. This year is as important as any in the past that we have held one,” John Dearie said.
By now, another issue was beginning to stake a claim to any forum agenda: immigration reform and what to do about the plight of the undocumented Irish.
Organizers also offered presidential candidates a flexible roster that could mean multiple forum gatherings in New York City, or indeed outside it.
Invitations duly went out to Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.
Two of the three, Clinton and McCain, would make appearance though not only in different locations and on different dates, but in two states, New York in Clinton’s case, Pennsylvania in the case of Arizona’s McCain.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, would later to a series of questions presented jointly by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Ladies AOH and the Irish American Unity Conference – this after Obama became his party’s presidential candidate.
2008 would be standout year after in that there were two forum gatherings, one in Manhattan attended by Hillary Clinton, the other in Scranton attended by John McCain, the first Republican candidate to ever physically attend the event.
Clinton would not only attend a forum event, but would also hold a press conference for Irish and Irish American journalists.
Her interest in Ireland was taken as a given. Her need for Irish American was considered vital, not least because Irish America was riven.
Senator Edward Kennedy had declared his support for Clinton’s Democratic rival, Barack Obama.
John McCain’s arrival on the Irish stage did not have quite such a party division as a backdrop.
Somewhat similar to the 1988 forum, the Scranton gathering he attended would be part general election Republican Party rally with a specific Irish wraparound.
McCain acknowledged his pioneering status to loud cheers in a theater in the hometown of future Vice President Joe Biden that was once the centerpiece of a Masonic temple.
And in a delivery that crossed from general election issues to Ireland and back again, McCain pledged to continue the presidential policy of appointing a special envoy to Northern Ireland.
He also addressed the immigration issue in a prepared speech that did not specifically answer the six questions in the Irish forum format, but ranged over much of the ground that those questions covered.
McCain was introduced to whoops and cheers by radio host Adrian Flannelly, who along with John Dearie, organized that year’s forum gatherings.
Dearie did not make the trip to Scranton as he was recovering from hip surgery but a number of other influential figures who were centrally involved in organizing the Scranton event sat on the stage just a few feet from McCain.
They included Grant Lally and Jeff Cleary of the Irish American Republicans lobby group, recently elected Ancient Order of Hibernians National President, Seamus Boyle, and Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform vice chairman, Ciaran Staunton.
McCain’s campaign rolled the Irish forum into a more general town hall meeting style exchange for those who were there to hear him speak about Ireland specifically, and those who were there to express broad support for the McCain/Palin ticket.
McCain was accompanied to the stage by fellow GOP senators, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Also on stage, and he was given a huge cheer by the crowd, was by then Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman from Connecticut.
The local daily newspaper, The Times-Tribune, reported on its front page - under a photo of McCain arriving the night before at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport - that McCain had arrived in the city “in advance of what is billed as an Irish American town hall meeting.”
During the forum, McCain, famed for his service and imprisonment, went straight for familiar ground.
The Irish, he said, had contributed “in literally every war this nation has fought, up to an including the present ones.
He described this record of service as being “remarkable,” and a “great heritage.”
McCain noted that the Irish American Presidential Forum dated back to 1984 and since its inception there had indeed been “a lack of Republicans” in attendance.
“I’m proud to be the first Republican to appear,” he said.
“I am committed to America’s leadership role,” McCain said of Washington’s involvement in Northern Ireland.
“I need the Irish American vote,” the Arizona senator concluded while describing himself as the underdog in that November general election.
McCain secured quite a few of those votes but he would lose the election to Barack Obama.
As president, Obama would maintain the Irish policies given birth in the 1990s though Washington’s tack by this stage was to observe the evolving peace process be encouraging all parties, this while maintaining distance from any overt intervention
For sure, the issues, by 2012, were not as sharply defined as they were back in the 1980s and early 1990s when the Troubles were yet wreaking havoc and Washington was still looking at them through a most narrow prism.
Nevertheless, many Irish Americans still saw the exercise of staging a forum as being important if only to assess the degree of U.S. interest and involvement in the peace process, to see how or if it had in any way changed, and to consider ways of improving and enhancing Washington’s role in what was still a fragile accommodation between the communities in the Six Counties.
There was no forum gathering in that year. President Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney in an election dominated by economic issues.
This election year has, too passed without a forum event.
Not a few Irish Americans are uneasy about this.
The Republican Party platform for 2016 does contain a line, however.
“We applaud the ongoing reconciliation in Northern Ireland and hope that its success might be replicated in Cyprus.”
Now, it can safely be assumed that Irish America wishes Cyprus all the very best but Ireland, specifically the North, remains its priority.
This year’s Democratic platform seemed to forget that and made no mention of Northern Ireland at all.
That said, Hillary Clinton, who has been her husband’s partner as well as her own boss in years of interest in Ireland going back to the 1990s, recorded a video message that was played at a recent event in Belfast.
Ireland hasn’t gone from the presidential drama though this year it has been more off stage than on.
Some are already planning to bring it back to center stage in 2020.
This article first appeared in the Irish Echo. For more stories, visit their website here.