Barack Obama needs the huge Irish-American vote in closely-fought Pennsylvania battlegrounds like Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburbs. There are similar pockets of Irish American swing voters in other key states. But this Irish dimension is so far being lost or downplayed in the prevailing political discourse about whiteness or Catholicism, and Obama himself has stumbled in his outreach efforts.
Interviews with journalists, political leaders and activists in Belfast this week - including some whose publications are widely read in Pennsylvania - revealed widespread interest in Obama's candidacy but also concerns about his approach to white ethnics like the Irish.
For example, Hillary Clinton was "treated like a queen" by Irish throngs during Pittsburg's St. Patrick's Day parade, according to Larry Kirwan, while Obama went missing. In his fabled Berlin speech in July, Obama declared that the walls between Catholics and Protestants had come down in Northern Ireland, when in fact the barriers separating communities have increased since the Good Friday Agreement. Obama's top adviser on Northern Ireland, Trina Vargo, recently left the campaign after being involved in sharp public disputes with the Irish immigration lobby in Washington.
Vargo, a former adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, has been replaced in the Obama campaign by Carol Wheeler, whose background includes involvement in children's charities. Wheeler denies this account, saying she is an "addition", not a replacement, and is now the "voluntary coordinator for Irish American outreach" and works with the campaign staffer who does "advocacy outreach.". In any event, Vargo's falling out with Niall O'Dowd, who was a major Hillary Clinton backer and a central force in Irish immigrant politics, has been a divisive setback.
After Vargo openly criticized Irish immigrant advocates for being racist in seeking special treatment, O'Dowd answered in the Irish Times that Vargo "should stick to Hollywood galas and stop insulting Irish illegal migrants to the US who are trying to regularize their positions." [Nov. 20, 2007]. O'Dowd's position, supported by every Irish-American group, is that should seek to regularize their immigrant status, as they have on occasion in the past, while at the same time supporting an alliance of all immigrant groups pursuing comprehensive reform.
On another vital Irish issue, "We need America to be a watchdog against extremist behavior" in Northern Ireland, says Mairtin O'Muilleor, a prominent publisher in both Northern Ireland and the US. O'Muilleor cited the recent episode in Belfast in which Iris Robinson, wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, castigated a Gay Pride parade and proposed therapy as an alternative cure. No one from the US spoke out, O'Muilleor noted, even though the American government is an important party to the Good Friday Agreement. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party [DUP], which Robinson represents, has deep historical ties with the US Republican Party and evangelical Christians.
More important, O'Muilleor stressed, the peace agreement needs to be "cemented with jobs", especially in the heavily-Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods which suffered most during the 30-year war. Investment, however, is skewed heavily towards Protestant-dominated institutions and neighborhoods, even though a Sinn Fein leader, Tom Hartley, is the mayor of Belfast and Sinn Fein is the city's largest party. In a response Obama could endorse, the New York City controller's office has initiated pension fund investments in disadvantaged communities of Belfast, a move that may be copied by other US officials, O'Muilleor said.
These are proposals that Obama could support as a candidate, which would resonate in Irish-American communities, O'Muellior argues.
The point he and others make is that there is an Irish-American vote to be won through concrete steps to recognize the distinct needs of the Irish, a path followed with great success for Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Clintons became heroes to the Irish on both sides of the ocean, starting with Clinton's bold support for a visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1992, a step that helped unlock the peace process of the later decade.
With the Clintons now supporting Obama, John McCain is vulnerable in Irish-America. This year he excoriated Adams and Sinn Fein at a huge Irish-American fundraising dinner with Adams in the audience. The diatribe was an echoing reminder of the ugly polarizations that preceded the peace process. McCain is out of step with that process. Even George Bush, according to the Irish, seems fully briefed in his diplomatic role in supporting the fragile process.
To ignore this Irish dimension serves to the advantage of the implicit Republican appeal on racial issues like affirmative action and religious issues like abortion. Winning more Irish Democrats and independents to Obama will require an understanding of the progressive dimensions of Irish-American culture, rooted in an immigrant working class experience and nationalist ethos.
Aside from producing some green O'Bama tee shirts earlier this year, the Obama campaign has not yet displayed the rhetoric or resources necessary to win its share of the Irish-American vote. Given the Electoral College, the November election may hinge on this redefinition of race and ethnicity.
TOM HAYDEN recently returned from one week in Belfast and Dublin. He is the author of Irish on the Inside [Verso].