Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency has been overshadowed by an email row, but Irish America wants her to continue her husband’s legacy, writes Bette Browne.
Much of the Irish-American vote mirrors that which she desperately needs for victory — it is white, male, and middle class
When the Clintons are in trouble, Irish America tends to ride to the rescue. When her husband’s presidency was imperiled by the Lewinsky scandal it was the Irish who lionised him and yesterday, it was Hillary who was feted at a high-powered New York luncheon, even as the rumbling email controversy threatens to overshadow her imminent announcement on a US presidential bid.
When she walked into the roomful of well-heeled Irish-American supporters to accept a Hall of Fame award from Irish America magazine, she effectively launched her long-anticipated campaign by targeting a key voting bloc.
Much of the Irish-American vote mirrors that which she desperately needs for victory — it is white, male, and middle class, and unless she wins it over she will face an uphill battle in the 2016 race. She already looks assured of much of the female vote.
One of those who attended yesterday’s event, New York lawyer and Irish-American leader Paul O’Dwyer, put it this way: “It was an opportunity for her to connect with white ethnic middle-class voters who, unfortunately, in the last few years, have deserted the Democratic party. If anybody can bring them back, it is Hillary Clinton.”
And bring them back she must if she is to win the presidency. Specifically, she will need to carry two of three key states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.
“If you look at two of those states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, they are very heavily Irish-American and heavily Catholic Irish. So while the Irish vote is not a unified one across the country, in critical sates there is a large percentage of Irish Americans,” says Irish America publisher Niall O’Dowd, who is organised yesterday’s event.
“So from that point of view, there is a very important Irish aspect to the election.”
Referring to Mrs Clinton as “one of the unsung heroes of the success of the Irish peace process”, he pointed out that “when she took over as secretary of state, she made it clear that Ireland would remain a top issue for her and she visited Ireland no less than six times. She has to attract a large percentage of the white ethnic vote and the reason she’s paying such attention to Ireland also is that there’s a political calculation as well and that’s understandable.”
But politics is a two-way street. And while the links that bind the Clintons and Irish America can be explained in three words — ‘Irish peace deal’ — it goes deeper than that.
It also has to do with the coming of age of Irish America and the evolution within its ranks of a powerful lobby that has now secured open access to the heart of American power and has shown it can deliver for political candidates, nationally and locally.
Those of us who lived in the US when the peace process was unfolding witnessed the rise of this confident new lobby and the fall of its predecessor that for generations tended to see the route to Irish unity through the barrel of someone else’s gun.
It is true that the door of the White House was ajar for the Irish in previous decades.
But it was essentially limited to sentimental leprechaun-loving events on St Patrick’s Day, as typified under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That was until the Clintons came along and the Irish decided it was time to be taken seriously.
So a group of them sat down to lunch in New York one day in the 1990s when presidential aspirant Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas and worked their plan out on the back of a napkin. They took a chance on Clinton and how it paid off is well documented. The bloodletting in Ireland halted and peace, however tenuous, still endures.
And so, five months after the Irish peace deal was signed and Bill Clinton’s presidency teetered on the brink on the evening of September 11, 1998, with the release of the final report on the Lewinsky scandal, the Irish came through for him.
They had gathered for an event on the South Lawn of the White House and when the president and first lady emerged, they were cheered to the echo as TV news crews clicked in amazement. It was a gesture, I was told later, that deeply moved the embattled Clintons.
And now it is Hillary’s turn. But with peace secured in the North, what does Irish America want from her if there is a new Clinton White House? The answer is twofold.
On one hand, they want to see the US helping to bed down and underpin peace in the North with more financial assistance, and on the other hand they want the US to promote increased investment in the Republic.
“The Irish community has been disappointed to say the least with the reaction [in the US] to the peace process,” says O’Dwyer. “Those of us who worked in the peace process promised all communities in the North that if they invested in peace, we would invest in them.
“Unfortunately that never came about — partly because of a change of administration along with the recession.
“But if Hillary is elected, we would expect and press for additional aid to Northern Ireland to ensure that both communities prosper. That would be the only way to ensure that the tenuous peace in the North would continue.
“As to the Republic, we would press for further trade considerations that are enjoyed by other European countries and in particular we would ask that Ireland should not be singled out as it has been as the poster child for tax reform. Of course, many of the issues are domestic and would be part of our agenda as well, including reform of higher education financing and a raise in the minimum wage.”
“Hillary Clinton values the Irish connection,” O’Dowd emphasised. “Both she and her husband will tell you that their trip to Belfast in 1995 was one of the highlights of his presidency. They have good friends in the Republic as well and I think Hillary will remain a very good friend of Ireland if she’s elected.”
Certainly, that appears to be the hope among her Irish-American supporters. But they may also be hoping they won’t have to ride to her rescue too often.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved