Irish-American voters have become the focus of intense campaigning in the US Presidential election as the race for the White House hots up.

Both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have raised their game this week in their efforts to win the key Irish-American demographic in several crucial swing states.

McCain was in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Monday addressing the Irish Presidential Forum, while members of Senator Barack Obama’s Irish advisory panel held a press briefing to slam the Republican nominee’s prior record on Irish issues.


The Republican Party’s candidate pledged to continue to appoint a special envoy to Ireland if elected president, matching Senator Obama’s recent vow on the issue. He praised the return of the power-sharing Stormont administration and pledged a US government led by him would continue as an “honest broker”.

“When in May of last year the world saw images of a devolved government in Belfast, restored under the stewardship of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, it captured a political courage the previous generation could have scarcely imagined,” he said.

“There remains hard work ahead. It is an honour for the United States to be trusted as an honest broker by both parties to the Good Friday agreement, and if I am elected president, I will continue America’s leadership role.

“I am committed, as I know the American people are committed, to furthering the bonds of co-operation that have been forged in Northern Ireland’s peace process.”


And playing his high card, McCain also vowed to introduce comprehensive immigration reform that he said would give the estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish “a path to citizenship.”

Immigration activists praised the McCain statement and claimed they had not received any assistance from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on the issue.

Ciaran Staunton, deputy chair of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), said that in comparison to the McCain, the organisation had been rebuffed by the Obama campaign.

“We’ve had great access to Senator McCain,” Mr Staunton said. “Every event we’ve invited him to over the past two years, both in Washington and in the Bronx, he has shown up too...I spent half an hour talking with him about the (undocumented) issue and other Irish-American issues and he didn’t need notes or staff.

“He gets the issue. This is in contrast to his opponent. We have as yet been unable to get a hold of Barack Obama to turn up to any campaigns.”

In a separate development, a new visa has been brought in to allow Irish people to work and travel in the US for up to a year, after an agreement was signed in Washington this week. Around 20,000 visas are expected to be issued annually under the agreement, which will also allow some 5,000 US citizens to come and work in Ireland for a year.


Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has highlighted McCain’s poor record on Irish issues, including his strident opposition to the visa waiver which allowed Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams to visit the US at a critical juncture in the peace process.

At a conference on Monday by Obama’s Irish advisory panel, participants recalled the heated debate over the first Adams visa, and how McCain strongly criticized President Bill Clinton for giving the go-ahead.

“History shows that it was a brilliant thing to bring Adams to America,” said Senator Patrick Leahy. “I remember how John McCain strongly opposed that. He said it was pandering to the Irish. He had no understanding of the history involved, or how important it was to bring both sides together.”

Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland said McCain was more concerned with appeasing the British at the time. But now, in the heat of a tight presidential race, McCain’s old Straight Talk Express slogan “has now become the Blarney Bus,” he said.

“He will tell the people (in Scranton) what they want to hear, instead of the way he sees it. The truth is he’s 20 years late on pivotal Irish issues.”

US Senator Chris Dodd, an early and critical supporter of the Adams visa, recalled the tense times leading up to its approval, and how the Clinton decision represented an historic change in American policy - change McCain attempted to thwart.

“He could have sided with those of us who wanted to change history,” Dodd said, while praising Obama’s running mate Joe Biden, saying he’ll be a strong advocate of Irish issues. “I have no idea where Sarah Palin is on this issue,” Dodd said of McCain’s running mate. “(Biden) has been critically involved for years in Ireland.”


Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland group, recalled the speech McCain delivered when he was honoured at the 2005 American-Ireland Fund gala. McCain’s highly politicised speech strongly criticised Sinn Féin at a time when British lobbyists were piling on pressure over the party’s remaining links to the Provisional IRA.

“I was at the dinner when he spoke. People were startled,” said Neal. “Senator McCain has been wrong all the way.”

Congressmen Joe Crowley also remembered the Ireland Fund dinner as a low point for McCain and the Irish. “We listened in disgust,” he said. “I said it was like being lectured to by a substitute teacher.

“John McCain was absent when it came to Ireland. He has tried to pander to the Irish with regards to immigration. But McCain is no longer seen as a leader on immigration reform. He’ll tell the Irish today, don’t worry, we’ll have comprehensive immigration reform. But when he’s in Texas he’ll tell them, we’ll run them out of the country.”


McCain also faced criticism this week from Irish American Labor Coalition head Joe Jamison following comments McCain made during a rally in Pennsylvania.

Speaking before a veterans group, McCain told a joke about the Irish twin brothers questioning each other about their Dublin origins.

“They were so blind drunk that, from opposite ends of a long bar, they couldn’t tell they were speaking with their own sibling. So they marveled at how near they lived to each other growing up. It didn’t make much sense as a joke. But it is, perhaps, a good indication of McCain’s real sensitivities on matters Irish,” said Jamison.

“It’s an insulting negative stereotype. Those who delude themselves that McCain’s in our camp and has ‘got a great position on Irish immigration’ have another good reason to think again,” said Jamison.

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