US Presidential candidate Barack Obama has asked former senator George Mitchell and six leading Irish-American politicians to advise him on Ireland amid a backlash over his campaign’s handling of Irish issues.
The advisory panel will include senators Edward Kennedy, Chris Dodd and Patrick Leahy, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and congressmen Richard Neal and Joe Crowley.
“I am delighted to be able to call upon a ‘dream team’ of leaders who cherish the US-Irish bond as I do,” Mr Obama said. “I look forward to putting in place policies that will fortify this indispensable relationship.”
Last week, there was a sharply hostile reaction by Irish-American activists to a position paper on Irish issues which suggested that Obama could abolish the position of US special envoy to the North. It also downplayed the political crisis in the North despite the failure to implement the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement and ongoing conflict across the North.
Reports identified the source of the paper as Trina Vargo, a director of the ‘US-Ireland Alliance’ organisation, who previously infuriated Irish-America by arguing against a deal to legalise Irish immigrants facing deportation from the US.
Sinn Féin’s Rita O’Hare said the statement had generated considerable confusion over Obama’s position on Ireland.
“In terms of the claim that the crisis in the North is over I would ask which crisis is over? What is coming down the line here is that there has not been a meeting of the Executive for six weeks,” she added.
“As a Sinn Féin representative for America I would very firmly say that the crisis is not over and there’s very great concern about the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to do business that isn’t DUP business.”
Brian O’Dwyer, head of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, said he was “profoundly disappointed to the point of being shocked” at the statement.
He said, “I think there are a series of things about the statement that pertain bad things for Irish America.”
O’Dwyer was angry that such a statement was released by an organization run by Vargo.
“Trina Vargo has proven to be a constant enemy of Irish immigration reform,” said O’Dwyer.
“I notice in the statement no mention has been made of any provision to cure the historic inequity discrimination felt by the Irish and the immigration laws.”
Expressing bewilderment at the development, some of Mr Obama’s supporters believe the Democratic candidate has now allowed John McCain to outmanoeuvre him in pursuit of Irish-American support.
Mr McCain personally intervened in the drafting of the Republican party platform, which was approved in St Paul this week, to include a commitment to retaining the special envoy.
“The special US envoy was first appointed by president Clinton and has been critical to fostering peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
“That Senator Obama would be willing to toss aside one of the signature diplomatic accomplishments of the Clinton administration and put the progress in Northern Ireland at risk is only further evidence that he is simply not ready to lead,” Mr McCain’s spokesman Brian Rogers said last week.
Mr Obama’s campaign said the creation of the advisory panel reflected the importance the candidate attached to US-Irish relations and his admiration for Ireland’s progress towards peace and prosperity.
“As president he intends to do all the United States can do to help deepen the peace that so many have worked so hard to establish, and to strengthen US-Irish cultural, educational, and trade ties, which are central to the identities of the United States and Ireland,” the campaign said.
‘ACT ON AEGIS’
Meanwhile, Irish-American voters are urging Barack Obama to act on his concerns about US funding given to a security firm in Iraq run by British army officer Tim Spicer.
Obama criticised Mr Spicer’s private company, Aegis Defense Services, and said that the US should consider rescinding its multi-million-dollar contract given Mr Spicer’s past.
The contract sparked controversy because of Mr Spicer’s record in Ireland where he commanded the murderous Scots Guards regiment during the early 1990s.
Soldiers in that regiment shot and killed Belfast teenager Peter McBride in September of 1992.
Mr Spicer subsequently defended the actions of his men.
Two members of the regiment were tried for murder, convicted and sentenced to life. They were released after just six years, reinstated and later promoted.