By Lynne Kelleher
Ireland’s famous access to the White House on St Patrick’s Day is all thanks to one ambassador pain- stakingly tracing Ronald Reagan’s Tipperary ancestors, according to a new RTÉ documentary.
The origin of the nation’s unfettered admission to the American president every March — which is the envy of many countries around the world — is revealed in the compelling documentary on John Hume’s instrumental role in the peace process.
The Irish ambassador to the US from 1978 to 1981, Seán Donlon, told how former Hollywood star Reagan’s connection to Ballyporeen was key to the opening of the White House door to the Irish taoiseach every March 17.
“I had met Ronald Reagan when he was running for president and I asked him, as I would ask anyone with a name like that, how far back his Irish connections went. To my surprise he wasn’t sure.
“We were able to eventually get the shipping records and were able to trace the president back to Ballyporeen.
“He had said to me during the election campaign, ‘if you find I’m Irish, I will mark it on the first St Patrick’s Day if I’m in the White House’.”
The documentary details how John Hume quietly but ingeniously forged links to powerful US political brokers as far back as 1972 when he got a loan from the credit union to take up an invitation to meet Ted Kennedy in Bonn, Germany.
“His relationship with him was very close. He trusted him absolutely,” said Jean Kennedy Smith of her younger brother’s friendship with the Derry teacher.It was a friendship which was to prove pivotal to the Irish cause as Hume’s growing influence with leading Americans led to US pressure on the British to sort out the Troubles.
Nearly a decade later in 1981, Irish ambassador Seán Donlon told how President Reagan was true to his word and turned up for a St Patrick’s Day reception at the Irish embassy in Washington during his first year in the White House.
It was also attended by legendary house speaker Tipp O’Neill, and by Ted Kennedy.
“Tipp O’Neill said to President Reagan, ‘Next year I’ll do the lunch if you’ll come’. There was a tradition in Washington that the president never visited the Hill except for his state of union speech once a year, but on the spot, he agreed. Ever since then the speaker has had a lunch on St Patrick’s Day and so far, every president has attended,” Mr Donlon said.
Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny told how Hume had a structure and a strategy to mobilise the Irish American influence in the Senate and on Capitol Hill. “Once he got that foot in that door, he kept it open.”
Maurice Fitzpatrick’s 90-minute documentary about Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mr Hume includes interviews with Bertie Ahern, two former US presidents — Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — along with former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major.
Footage ranging from Mr Hume on the frontlines bravely trying to reason with rubber bullet-firing soldiers, to detailed accounts from all the major players in the peace process over the past five decades, leave no doubt as to his pivotal role.
Bill Clinton summed up the esteem in which the softly-spoken Mr Hume is held, when he called him “the Irish conflict’s Martin Luther King”.
All the behind-the-scenes machinations by Hume in America laid the ground work for Reagan’s unwelcome but persistent pressure on Margaret Thatcher on the Irish issue which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was signed in 1985.Ambassador to the US from 1997 to 2002, Sean O’Huiginn, credits American pressure for the signing of landmark agreement.
He said: “The improbable development of Mrs. Thatcher signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement essentially came from her exasperation that every time she got together with Ronald Reagan, to manage the free world between them or for her to manage the Free World through him, he would tiresomely come up with this Irish issue
“In that Ronald Reagan was channelling Tipp O’Neill and Ted Kennedy who were in turn were channelling John Hume.”
Liam Neeson narrates letters send from Tip O’Neill to Ronald Reagan persistently lobbying him to bring up Ireland with Mrs. Thatcher The documentary tells of the English Prime Minister later told one of her closest association, Lord McAlpine: “It was the Americans who made me do it.”
Jeffrey Donaldson said it was a mistake that Unionism didn’t recognise earlier the way Hume was using Washington to put pressure on London to do business with Dublin.
Mr Clinton related how Mr Hume never gave up on the peace process.
“He just believed he was on the right side of history and had read the Irish psyche properly,” said the former US president.
John Hume In America is on RTÉ One tomorrow tonight on Tuesday at 9.35pm.