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Intelligencer: 28 Aug - 2 Sept 2008
August 28, 2008
Obama’s Irish Snub
SENATOR Barack Obama’s latest statement on Ireland arrived in Irish legislators’ inboxes courtesy of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, the allegedly non-partisan group in Washington, D.C. run by Trina Vargo that sends 12 students to Ireland a year, and gets millions from the Irish government for doing so.
This development is hardly surprising given that Vargo, a former Senator Edward Kennedy staffer who dealt with Northern Ireland, has played a role in shaping Obama’s Irish policy, and the statement certainly reads like her work.
She is tight with Tony Lake, who is handling the Obama foreign policy, so it would be natural for him to delegate to her to write the Irish statement. Lake is also a former Kennedy staffer and worked closely with Vargo on the peace process.
The Obama people know well that Vargo is a highly controversial figure in Irish American activist circles. Her comments in an Irish Times article that helping Irish undocumented achieve legal status was like “putting lipstick on a pig” have reverberated around the community for months now.
No Surprise Over Controversy
IT is not surprising then that this latest statement on Ireland is further cause for controversy. Vargo has been of the opinion that the issue of Northern Ireland is essentially dealt with and over, and that we all need to move on.
She even made major efforts to have the walls in West Belfast between the two divided communities brought down, even commissioning a poll on the subject. That silliness was stopped in no uncertain fashion by local residents. Vargo badly needs to learn that peace comes dropping slow.
The new Obama statement exhibits that same impatience. It says, “But he (Obama) also recognizes that the crisis period for Northern Ireland has passed.”
Really? Were the issues of devolved policing and justice all sorted out when we all were not looking? Has the Executive finally come together and agreed to work in tandem without anyone noticing? Have dissidents toped trying to kill policemen?
The statement goes on, “(Obama) will consult with the Taoiseach, the British prime minister and party leaders in Northern Ireland to determine whether a special envoy for Northern Ireland continues to be necessary, or whether a senior administration official serving as point person for Northern Ireland would be most effective.”
It seems Obama is planning a downgrading of the Irish envoy position, which is an extraordinary thing to do on the eve of an election. Why else raise the issue at all?
The reality is that it’s very unclear what this statement means. A special envoy continues to be vital and necessary, as current Bush envoy Paula Dobriansky has proven in recent months when she played a leading role in resolving the recent crises by helping secure key agreements between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists. She also had a big hand in creating and managing the Northern Ireland investment conference earlier this year in Belfast.
Wholehearted American support and involvement will also be vital in resolving the upcoming issues of policing and devolution. The activist Irish American community does not believe for a second that the job of creating a successful political and economic infrastructure in Northern Ireland is completed.
There are still legitimate fears that the entire arrangement could collapse. Any diminution in the American role would be completely unacceptable.
Yet that is what Obama appears to be debating in this paragraph in his Irish statement. How he (or Vargo) could come to the conclusion that Northern Ireland is done and dusted and no longer really in need of American assistance is hard to fathom. It is an amazing error.
Sinn Fein Upset
DON’T just take our word for it that people are angry. Senior Sinn Fein officials were apoplectic at the Obama statement and were pointing the finger squarely at Vargo.
They, like many others, are confused as to how someone like Vargo who is clearly not in good standing with Irish American activists is purporting to speak for Irish America on the North.
There were frantic calls across the Atlantic to key Irish American legislators on Tuesday when the Vargo/Obama statement came out. The lack of consultation with many of those same legislators has become a cause for major concern for both them and Sinn Fein as the peace process continues to face hurdles.
One can only imagine the first meeting between Obama and Sinn Fein being a rather frosty one if he seeks to downgrade the importance of the U.S. special envoy.
NO doubt the Obama screw-up provides a good opportunity for Senator John McCain to capitalize. His Irish Americans for McCain members could hardly conceal their glee when the story hit of Obama’s Irish statement.
The Irish for McCain people will have their own event in Minneapolis next week and can expect a large attendance. No doubt McCain’s Irish statement will be made public at the convention, and it will have very little nuance to it.
When it comes to ethnic politics, once again it is amazing how much more surefooted the Republicans appear to be.
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