The appearance of Gerry Adams and Bill Clinton at The Cooper Union in New York City on Monday, April 3 will highlight the fact for Irish Americans that both men will go down in history as architects of the Good Friday Agreement and key figures in bringing peace to Ireland.
The fact that they are both speaking on the topic at a time when the tectonic plates are once again shifting in Northern Ireland, ironically due to Brexit, makes Monday’s occasion, as well as the annual Martin McGuinness Foundation dinner which takes place the night after, hugely important.
The Cooper Union, of course, has an incredible history. On February 27, 1860, a plain-spoken Midwestern politician named Abe Lincoln was auditioning for the support of the East Coast elite who were keen to see what the congressman from Illinois had to say.
To state that Lincoln won them over would be an understatement. It was the first time his vast oratorical powers came to the notice of the East Coast political machines. The 1,500 in attendance had never heard such eloquence and a star who would forever outshine all other presidents was born.
An eyewitness that evening said, "When Lincoln rose to speak, I was greatly disappointed. He was tall, tall – oh, how tall! And so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for such an ungainly man."
However, once Lincoln warmed up, "his face lit up as with an inward fire; the whole man was transfigured. I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities. Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man."
Adams and Clinton will certainly be in the slipstream of some powerful and important political historic events, but both men in their own way have made their own history which will eventually be seen as important for Ireland as Lincoln was for the survival of the United States.
The first Adams visa granted by President Clinton in 1994 was a critical factor in the peace process. For the first time in recorded history, America went against the British on a matter of foreign policy. It was an unwritten law, so much so that Irish American President John F. Kennedy hardly mentioned the issue during his time in Ireland.
Clinton had no such fears and went against his State Department, House Speaker Tom Foley, and agencies such as the CIA and FBI in order to create the historic opportunity for peace.
Adams also went the extra mile, winning vital internal arguments as to the future of the Republican movement and risking his own life in order to forge a pathway to peace.
There is little doubt that without either man the peace process would never have survived.
We have only to look at what is happening in Israel lately to understand how things can go disastrously wrong without men or women of great courage and commitment giving it their all. The Middle East peace process is no more.
Thanks to men like Clinton and Adams, however, we are in the endgame in Ireland. Having the two of them speak at The Cooper Union, where Lincoln first emblazoned his political genius across the night sky, is fitting indeed. They are doing for Ireland and peace what Lincoln did for the United States.
*This column first appeared in the March 29 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.