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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Hilary's rose-tinted recollections fail to convince Irish-Americans

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

On Hilary Clinton's website is a video of Whoopee Goldberg dramatically switching her support from Barack Obama. It was quite a coup for Clinton to win the backing of a leading black actress, who is a role model for many African-American girls, who had previously supported Obama. The reason for Goldberg's overnight conversion was instructive.

"Mostly I wanted to find out who was going to say to the companies who keep expediting (sic) these jobs to other countries 'we are taking away your tax breaks'" Goldberg said.

Until the previous day Goldberg had thought that Obama had been first to raise the issue but she had now discovered "Mrs Clinton said it first" and would support her on that basis. "That's a big deal for me" she said to nods of agreement from other chat-show panellists.

That issue is becoming more relevant as America heads into recession. "We are going to finally close the loopholes and stop giving tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas" Clinton has said. "Enough with outsourcing American jobs using taxpayers' dollars". She knows that keeping jobs at home is a popular slogan as the dollar slides to new lows, the country teeters on the edge of recession and public pressure grows for protectionist trade policies.

It's bad news for a country like Ireland that depends heavily on American multinationals. Some are using Ireland as a bridgehead to Europe, but others are taking advantage of low Irish corporation tax to transfer profits and jobs out of America and export goods and services back. Clinton has also made specific and long standing pledges on increasing the use of generic medicines, which could destroy thousands of jobs manufacturing brand-name pharmaceuticals like Viagra and Subutramine.

American protectionism is also bad news for Northern Ireland, which hosts a large American investment conference in May. Part of the preparation for it was a visit to the US by Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley last December. Hilary Clinton took an hour off from her campaign to meet them, and the encounter was recorded on her website. She promised that, if elected, the door of the White House would be open to them but she made no commitments on investment or tax breaks.

Now Clinton is struggling for the Irish-American vote after Ted Kennedy backed Obama, who is regularly described as the new JFK. Trina Vargo, President of the US Ireland Alliance and an important figure in the peace process as a Kennedy aide, is also supporting Obama. So are several key staffers in the Clinton White House who have hands on experience in Ireland.

Goodwill and an open door at the White House is a good start, but something more substantial is needed to make a real impact now. Key Irish American decision makers clearly don't see that there is anything crucial to set Clinton apart from Obama on the Irish issue, despite her knowledge and experience.

This may explain the increasing shrillness of her claims to have played a crucial role in the peace process. She is facing an uphill battle for Irish-American support and she knows it. Her assertion that she played an "instrumental" role in the peace process is also designed to suggest that her experience as first lady sets her aside from Obama.

Clinton has claimed a key role in other key conflicts from Rwanda to Kosovo and most famously boasted that she would know what to do if a crisis call came on the red phone hot line in the White House in the middle of the night. "Up to now all she had to say is 'it's for you Bill'" one US blogger quipped. Obama observed that the only real red telephone moment she had was when George Bush asked Senators to support the invasion of Iraq. She gave her endorsement, Obama withheld his.

Clinton had a significant supportive role in the peace process but that is as far as it goes. In her struggle with Obama she has pushed it further than that.

"I went [to Northern Ireland] more than my husband did. I was working to help change the atmosphere among people because leaders alone rarely make peace. They have to bring people along who believe peace is in their interests. I remember a meeting that I pulled together in Belfast, in the town hall there, bringing together for the first time Catholics and Protestants" she said in New Hampshire in January.

She spoke of a moving moment when a Catholic woman shared her daily fears that her husband wouldn't come home at night and a Protestant woman described the same worry about her son. "And for the first time they actually saw each other not as caricatures or stereotypes, but as human beings who actually had common experiences as mothers and wives and people." When the tape was played on Radio Ulster a caller asked if Hilary had also been worried about her husband coming home at night. It was a sign that people didn't take her seriously, it sounded too mawkish.

In her autobiography Clinton described similar sentiments being expressed at a gathering of peace activists in Belfast's Lamplighter Cafe, a cross community venture. The women involved were old friends – it wasn't a breakthrough moment achieved thanks to Hilary bringing them together for the first time.

During her five trips to Belfast Clinton did indeed attend two events at the City Hall. One was the switching on of Christmas lights with her husband and the second was a conference involving 100 female community activists from across the province.

Somehow these events have been pushed together, viewed through rose tinted glasses and rebranded as a seminal moment in the peace process.

Contrary to what Clinton says, it did take the leaders to make peace in Northern Ireland. The meetings she attended were part of the supportive background. Anyway, if leaders never make peace, then why does she want to be in the White House instead of organising women's meetings and community forums?

Clinton had an answer to that one on National Public Radio last Thursday. "One of the reasons why I'm running for president is to be constantly reaching out to try to bring people together to resolve conflicts and not let them fester and get worse" she said.

How exactly will an US president do this over trade issues with China, helping the Irish economy and managing the war on terror? A President is a commander-in-chief whose main job is to make the hard calls, set the big policy objectives, deploy the nation's resources and close deals. There needs to be reaching out too, but it is mostly done on the president's direction by the secretary of state, the diplomatic corps.

Geraldine McAteer, a member of the West Belfast Partnership who attended several meetings with Clinton said, "She had a pivotal role, not in the high wire negotiations which brought about the Good Friday Agreement, but she certainly had a pivotal role with women here in the North of Ireland." Which is about as far as you can push it.

But Clinton has pushed it further. ""What I was part of was a team and [it] included obviously the principal negotiators under the direct authority of my husband. I wasn't sitting at the negotiating table but the role I played was instrumental" she told NPR.

Her aide Terry McAuliffe cut through the equivocation on CNN "We would not have peace today had it not been for Hillary's hard work in Northern Ireland."

When you are explaining you are losing; Clinton needs to change the subject and move on.

For a start she could tell us what she intends to do to help Ireland and its peace process in the future. A few specific commitments on jobs would work wonders.

March 17, 2008

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16, 2008.