(Boston) – It doesn’t matter to me if Barak Obama can trace his Irish ancestry back to County Offaly. Or whether he marched in a recent St. Patrick’s Day parade, or whether he wears a shamrock on his lapel. And it shouldn’t matter to the Irish community in America either.
These are just incidentals that media pundits are grasping at to gauge Obama’s relationship with the Irish-American community.
To get a true measure of Obama’s stance on Irish issues, you need only refer to statements issued by his campaign over the past year. In those statements Obama has expressed support for issues important to Irish-American activists:
- Ensuring that Northern Ireland continues to progress under the principles of the Belfast Agreement;
- Continuing to develop trade and economic opportunities between the United States and Ireland and Northern Ireland as a way of strengthening cross-Atlantic partnerships; and
- Calling for comprehensive immigration reform to correct the failures of America’s current policies, while seeking a fair and equitable solution for the twelve million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States.
These issues are distilled from the five-point Irish Agenda that was developed in 1992 by a group called Irish-Americans for Clinton Gore. I was part of that effort, and crisscrossed the country with my then-boss, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and others on the presidential campaign in 1992 and 1996.
When he became president, Bill Clinton embraced the Irish Agenda, and by doing so the United States helped to usher in relative peace and prosperity throughout the island of Ireland. Hope and history did indeed rhyme in the 1990s, as Seamus Heaney knew.
Because of that progress, the Irish Agenda is not as pressing today as it once was, but the United States can continue to play a role, especially in regards to monitoring progress in Northern Ireland. I am gratified to know that Senator Obama publically supports these issues.
That said, it is important to emphasize that this presidential race is not about Ireland and the Irish. It is about the United States and Americans. That must be the focal point for anyone who is planning to vote this November.
I mention this because some pundits are still acting like its 1992. They’re trying to cast the choice between Barak Obama and John McCain as a referendum on which candidate embraces Irish issues most enthusiastically. It’s not about that.
Others are suggesting that voters in America’s heartland who happen to have Irish surnames might not vote for Obama because he hasn’t reached out to them as Irish-Americans. That is a ruse that I find offensive.
As someone born and raised in Pennsylvania, and having lived in Ohio, Alabama, California, New York and now Massachusetts in my adult life, I can tell you what Americans in the heartland with Irish surnames are thinking about.
It’s exactly what people with Polish, Chinese, Italian and Hispanic names are thinking.
They’re weighing up which candidate will best lead the United States over the next four to eight years. They’re considering which candidate has the best ideas for improving America’s economy, health care, education and environment. They’re deciding which candidate can best solve America’s problems having to do with war, immigration, race relations and energy resources.
And yes, they are looking for someone like John F. Kennedy who has the vision to lead our country in a manner that lives up to America’s enormous promise as a nation blessed with unparalleled opportunities, resources and freedoms.
It is inevitable that special interest groups play a role in American politics, and the Irish are no different in that regard. But I want to suggest that the times are different, certainly much different than they were in 1992, and Irish advocates need to keep this in mind.
In 2008, what matters more than ever is the well-being of our nation, the United States. There is a huge difference between Barak Obama and John McCain, and it doesn’t revolve around who is more Irish. It revolves around which candidate is best for America.
If Americans don’t get that right in this election, the whole world, including small countries like Ireland, will suffer in the long run.
Michael P. Quinlin is president of the Boston Irish Tourism Association and the author of the book Irish Boston.
- This article appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper, August 27-September 2, 2008.