A number of Irish political leaders gathered in Washington this week for the St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams thanked US supporters for their past commitment to the peace process and discussed a number of ongoing issues.
Speaking at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Friends of Sinn Féin lunch in Washington DC, which was attended by senior Trade Union leaders, he discuss the planned Constitutional Convention for the 26-County state.
“Last week the government acknowledged that voting rights for emigrants in presidential elections will be on the agenda for the Constitutional Convention.
“While this is a welcome development it doesn’t go far enough. The diaspora, especially Irish America, has played a crucial role in encouraging the peace process and in bringing jobs to the island of Ireland.
“The government has consciously sought to reach out to the global Irish through a number of initiatives and the Taoiseach has been in the USA several times in recent months seeking to woo business leaders to invest in the state.
He said the Irish government should go “beyond platitudes” and reciprocate the diaspora’s desire to help by connecting it back into Ireland in a practical way “through, for example, the extension of presidential voting rights to passport holders.
“I have raised this matter on a number of occasions directly with the Taoiseach in the Dáil and in our recent conversations on the Constitutional Convention.
“It is also sensible that any extension of president voting rights should extend to citizens living in the north.”
PEACE PROCESS ISSUES
Addressing the Congressional Friends of Ireland Committee later, Mr Adams thanked the congressional leaders for their “diligence and commitment to the peace process over many years”.
He asked for their continuing support in forcing the British government “to honour the outstanding issues arising out of the Good Friday Agreement, including its breach of its commitment on holding an inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.”
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Adams said the Finucane inquiry was the only outstanding one arising from commitments made at Weston Park in 2001 by the London and Dublin governments.
“The British government has refused to hold an independent inquiry and has instead asked for a lawyer to examine the available papers,” he said.
“This is unacceptable to the Finucane family who have instituted court proceedings.
“The fact is that the British government has admitted that there was collusion in the killing of Pat Finucane. It should stop obstructing an inquiry and honour its obligations to hold a public inquiry.
“I have asked US congressional leaders to support the family in their endeavour.”
The Sinn Féin leader also raised a number of other outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement, including a Bill of Rights for the north of Ireland; an all-island Charter of Rights; the establishment of the North/South Inter-parliamentary Forum and North South Consultative Forum; the introduction of an Acht na Gaeilge (Irish language Act) and a resolution to the issue of OTRs (those ‘on the run’ from pending prosecutions).
Mr Adams raised the cases of political internees Martin Corey, Gerry McGeough and Marian Price. The Sinn Féin leader also asked for support from the Congressional leaders for inquiries into the Ballymurphy and Springhill Massacres carried out by the British parachute regiment in 1971 and 72.
SHAMROCK DAY IN THE OVAL ROOM
Later in the week, US President Barack Obama met Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Oval Office for the annual exchange of a bowl of shamrock. The Washington events took place on Tuesday rather than St Patrick’s Day, as it clashed with a State Visit by British leader David Cameron.
Mr Obama said he and his wife Michelle had been made to feel so welcome that he pledged he would be back to Ireland. Ambassador Michael Collins introduced Mr Kenny as “a man with a very big mandate and a very big mission and a very big message” to deliver.
“My message is the same everywhere,” Mr Kenny replied. “Invest in Ireland’s recovery.”
Following the meeting the leaders released their remarks:
Obama said, “It is my great pleasure to welcome once again Taoiseach, Mr. Kenny, who has done, I think, extraordinary work during a very difficult time. Over the last several years, we’ve been able to strike up a friendship. And you’ll notice that even though technically it is not St. Patrick’s Day, we like to prolong the party around here. Technically, most of the Americans who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day aren’t Irish anyway -- (laughter) -- so we shouldn’t go on technicalities.
“I want to thank the Taoiseach, his lovely wife, and all of the people of Ireland for the extraordinary hospitality they showed Michelle and I when we had the chance to travel there recently. It was a magical day. It was too short, so I provided assurances that we will be returning. But the warmth and the goodwill that was expressed towards us I think was really representative of the deep bonds that exist between the United States and Ireland -- bonds that are almost unique among two countries around the world.”
Mr Obama also promised to visit Ireland again if he is re-elected.
Thanking the Taoiseach and the Irish people for their “extraordinary hospitality” during last year’s one-day visit to Dublin and Moneygall, Mr Obama said he had provided “assurances” he would return.
“It was a magical day. It was too short,” Mr Obama said. “The warmth and the goodwill that was expressed towards us I think was really representative of the deep bonds that exist between the US and Ireland; bonds that are almost unique among two countries around the world.”
Kenny also attended a breakfast hosted by Joe Biden, in his official residence at the Naval Observatory, with a host of prominent Irish American political and military officials, as well as lunch with business figures.
The Vice-President told the Taoiseach: “The thing I love about you old buddy is you’re always optimistic. You’re always optimistic. That’s the Irish.” He then offered a toast, “May you all look back on your past with as much pleasure as you look to the future.”
Earlier in the day, Mr Kenny rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange.
“As of now, Dow Jones is up 28 points,” he announced, to laughter.
The North’s First and Deputy First Ministers were also engaged in promotional work as they encouraged US tourists to visit the new “Titanic quarter” in Belfast and other tourist attractions.
At a meeting with the US President, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness invited him to visit the North of Ireland on his next trip. The US President failed to cross the border during his stopover last year.
Mr McGuinness said that while the economic downturn means emigration remains an issue, “the difference now is that more people are returning and, vitally, we are now a popular tourist location”.
MITCHELL RETURNS TO STORMONT
Meanwhile, the US statesman who helped to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement made a visit to the Stormont Assembly outside Belfast to praise the political process which he helped to create.
Retired senator George Mitchell, who chaired the marathon negotiations that produced the historic agreement, fulfilled a long-standing promise as he brought his wife and children on a tour of Parliament Buildings.
The 78-year-old politician said “full reconciliation” between Ireland’s divided communities was “not complete”, but insisted that progress had been striking.
He pointed to the role played by former republican prisoners and loyalists in operating tours of poverty-stricken west Belfast as an example “of how dramatic the changes have been” since he first came to Ireland.
“I don’t think any of us should exaggerate the realities, there are differences, there continue to be differences, the peace lines still stand and I don’t think that genuine reconciliation, full reconciliation will come immediately but perhaps over time with generational changes.
“But overall the attitude and the atmosphere, the politics and the public issues and what I really hope ordinary life for ordinary people has been much improved.”
Mr Mitchell said the people and politicians of the north had to be commended for the changes that have taken place.
“I feel personally very privileged to have been able to play some role in what has developed here,” he said. “I think now it’s an increasingly mature democracy.”