Hillary Clinton is inspiring a rising generation of young Irish leaders.
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton had already gone to Ireland and Northern Ireland on two occasions with her husband and to support women in Northern Ireland who were committed to sustaining the peace process.
That year, she took the extra step of inviting Irish interns from the Washington Ireland Program to work in the White House. Between 1998 and 2000 five WIP interns had the unique experience of working for President Clinton and the First Lady Hillary Clinton.
Getting past the objections of some officials to foreign interns in the White House was one the first hurdles that had to be overcome. According to Kris Balderston, a Special Assistant to the President and later the Secretary to the President’s Cabinet, Bill Clinton had to personally sign-off on an Irish intern working for the staff of the National Security Council one summer.
Carol Wheeler, the founder of WIP, said, “A White House internship is a prize and typically out of reach for anyone who's not a US citizen. We were amazed, and absolutely delighted, when we were able to give WIP students the opportunity of working both in the First Lady's office and in the office of the Cabinet Secretary. It was yet another indication of the administration's commitment to the peace process – and to Hillary's personal investment in helping in any way she could.”
When Clinton won her race for the U.S. Senate in 2000 from the state of New York, she made a point of once again recruiting Irish interns. So it was that over the course of a decade, eleven Irish university students had the unique opportunity of working in the White House and then in the U.S. Senate for Hillary Clinton.
And over the course of 20 years, over 500 future leaders from Ireland and Northern Ireland have come to Washington D.C. and worked for U.S. Senators and Representatives committed to supporting the Irish peace process. Many members of the Senate, including Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd, John McCain, Chuck Schumer – even Barack Obama – as well as Tom Harkin, Peter King, Joe Crowley and Jim Walsh in the House took on Irish interns every summer, often giving them their first real taste of politics.
The unstinting support that Hillary Clinton and so many other members of the U.S. Congress have given to the work of the Washington Ireland Program has helped to create a rising generation of young Irish leaders in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
These young leaders, now over 500 strong, include the youngest Minister in the Irish cabinet, Leo Varadkar T.D., and two sitting members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Chris Lyttle MLA and Claire Sugeden MLA. Eight alumni of the WIP program were also recently elected to local councilor seats in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including two to the Dublin City Council and one to the Belfast City Council.
As Clinton herself has said, “WIP alumni are now emerging as a new generation of leaders committed to peace, stability and prosperity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.”
These are just a few of their inspiring stories.
In 2003, Sharon Haughey traveled from Northern Ireland to work as a Senate intern to then-Senator Hillary Clinton. Her history with the Clintons went back much farther, however, to 1995, when at the age of 14 she wrote a letter to then-President Bill Clinton expressing her hopes for a peaceful Northern Ireland.
On November 30, 1995, when the president made his historic speech in Belfast, he quoted Haughey’s letter. Three years later, Haughey was asked to introduce President Clinton before a speech in Armagh.
Working in Senator Clinton’s office in 2003, Haughey gained the experience she needed to launch her own political career once home in Northern Ireland, joining the SDLP and getting elected to the Armagh City and District Council in 2005. In 2012, she was elected the first Lord Mayor of Armagh.
“Working with Hillary Clinton was the dream job,” Haughey has said. “For me, a young woman starting out in politics, I had so much to learn and who better to learn from than Hillary. My time in her Senate office cemented my desire and determination to get more involved in politics back home in Northern Ireland. Watching Hillary work so hard for her constituents was inspiring. She was, and still is, a powerful role model for women in politics.”
In fact, it was Clinton’s hard work that inspired Haughey to bring her talents back home. "To this day people often ask me was I not tempted to stay in America to work with Hillary. But for me, my time in Hillary's Senate office was all about experience, so that I could come back home and stand for election myself and to help shape the future I had told her and Bill that I wanted to see,” she said.
“That is what's so special about the Clintons, they help empower people and encourage young people in particular to play their full role in community and civic life.”
Noel Rock was only 18 years of age when he arrived in Washington D.C. in 2006, having just finished his first year at Dublin City University. Noel’s standout memory is of “sitting in [Hillary Clinton’s] office and her peppering me with questions about European and Irish current affairs. It became instantly apparent that she knew more about Irish current affairs than some Irish politicians!”
Noel would come back to the US to campaign for Hillary Clinton in Iowa during her presidential race in 2008, and then went on to launch his own political career. In April of this year, at the age of 26, Noel became the youngest candidate to win a seat on the Dublin City Council for the Fine Gael political party.
Caroline McNeill had a very unique experience interning for Clinton during the summer of 2007. As Caroline recounts, “All the ‘Clinterns’ were given the opportunity to meet her, have their picture taken and ask a few questions. I was first and thought I better take my opportunity, so I asked: ‘How do you see Irish-American relationships evolving over the coming years?’
“I explained to her that when I was 11 years old, my Mum and Dad brought myself and my three brothers to a very cold Belfast City center on November 30, 1995, to watch President Clinton switch on the Christmas Tree Lights. The Power Rangers had been booked to switch the lights on that year but Northern Ireland was delighted to have the President switch the lights on instead! Thousands turned up outside city hall clutching American flags, swaying to the sounds of Van Morrison before chanting ‘we want Bill…we want Bill.’
“My family and I were so far back that I asked my Dad to put me on his shoulders so I could see.
When he lifted me up I could see the president behind the bullet proof glass and heard his rich Southern drawl. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life and still is.”
Clinton was visibly moved when McNeill told her this story and said she couldn’t believe a girl with a Belfast accent was now working in her office for the summer.
The next day, McNeill recalls, “I came into the packed intern office on Capitol Hill, still on a high from my meeting with Hillary the day before. Around lunchtime, one of her aides burst into the office and said ‘Senator Clinton wants to see the Irish girl!’ The next thing I knew I was being brought down a corridor in the Russell Building, her aide pushed the door open and Hillary said,” ‘Here she is now! Caroline, this is your new Executive!’”
Sitting with Clinton were First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Clinton had told them McNeill’s story from the day before and said that they had to make things work for young people like her. First Minister Peter Robinson said “You’ll not be on your Daddy’s shoulders any longer!”
Following WIP, Caroline returned to Dublin to finish her degree at Trinity College, went on to study law, and is currently a senior policy advisor for the SDLP political party in Belfast. More than a few political experts expect Caroline to make her political debut in the next election cycle.
Long after Bill and Hillary Clinton leave the political stage these young Irish leaders will carry on their legacy as Northern Ireland and the Republic grapple with the legacy of the past and seek to create a new, deeper and more realistic understanding of what the island of Ireland will become in the 21st century.
Kevin Sullivan has been a long-time supporter of the WIP program and currently serves as the Chairman of the WIP Board of Directors.