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Clinton's Irish promise: unfulfilled, not forgotten


Just in case you want to keep track of which campaig promises Bill Clinton has kept and which he has not, the score card currently reads:

Gays in the military: largely kept.

Haitians getting to America: broken.

Special envoy to Northern Ireland: still waiting.

Special envoy to Northern Ireland? Where did that one come from? Has Northern Ireland been in the news lately?

No, it has not. But Bill Clinton is never going to be allowed to forget his campaign promise on Northern Ireland and for one very good reason:

Americans of Irish descent number about 44 million persons, making it our second-largest ethnic group. (German-Americans are America's largest ethnic group, but you rarely hear of them organizing to promote the cause of Germany. Two world wars may have had something to do with that.) There are many more people of Irish heritage in America than in Ireland, in fact. The combined population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is only about 6 million persons.

During last year's New York presidential primary, Bill Clinton was running against Jerry Brown, who, among other things, is a card-carrying Irishman. New York was a critical state to Clinton, and it contains many Irish-American voters.

And so Clinton found it an opportune moment to declare just how deeply he was committed to the cause of peace and justice in Northern Ireland.

At a meeting of Irish-American politicians, Raymond Flynn, mayor of Boston, asked Clinton a direct question: "Would your administration send a special U.S. peace envoy to Northern Ireland?"

And Clinton did not hesitate to answer directly. "The short answer to that question is yes," he said.

Bill Clinton won New York, won the Democratic nomination and then headed into the general election. And three weeks before Election Day, he wrote an open letter to Bruce Morrison, a former congressman from Connecticut and co-chairman (with Raymond Flynn) of "Irish-Americans for Clinton/Gore."

And in that letter, Clinton did everything but put on a green derby and dance a jig.

"I believe the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland could be a catalyst in the effort to secure a lasting peace," Clinton wrote. "We believe the British Government must do more to oppose the job discrimination that has created unemployment levels two and a half times higher for Catholic workers than Protestant workers."

And then Clinton added a paragraph that made the folks at 10 Downing St. in London sit up and take notice when the letter was released:

"We also believe that that British Government must establish more effective safeguards against the wanton use of lethal force and against further collusion between the security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups."

This was very strong stuff from an American presidential candidate, and while many Irish-Americans were heartened, many in the British government were not amused. Britain is, after all, a staunch U.S. ally.

Bill Clinton won. And he has not been remiss in rewarding certain persons of Irish heritage.

On St. Patrick's Day last week, Bill Clinton announced he was naming Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of Sen. Edward Kennedy, as ambassador to Ireland. He also made it known that Raymond Flynn was going to be named ambassador to the Vatican.

But what about that promise to name a special envoy to Northern Ireland?

Well, not right now, Clinton said. This is not the time to interfere, Clinton said.

So do we list that as a broken promise to Irish-Americans?

On Friday, I called Bruce Morrison, the person to whom Clinton addressed his strongly supportive letter last October. Morrison had just returned from meetings in Washington, D.C.

"Conversations I have had convince me that the issue of a special envoy is still under serious consideration," Morrison said. "I think that the president's interests and concerns about the situation in Northern Ireland has raised the visibility of the problem to an unprecedented level."

And it is likely to stay visible as long as several million voters in this country are determined to keep an eye on it.

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