04/09/2008 02:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned About American Politics from Watching the Irish Peace Process

The achievement of the people of Northern Ireland in restoring peace to their country after decades of sectarian conflict is one of the most inspiring chapters of recent history. I was privileged to serve as America's Ambassador to Ireland during the critical time that gave birth to the peace process, and I saw up-close the immense struggle in the North to overcome bitter partisan divisions and finally achieve peace.

It's essential to understand the true lesson that the Irish peace process can teach us about the qualities that are necessary in our country's next leader -- the ability to bring people together around a larger vision, for the betterment of our whole country and our whole planet as well. One man more than any other embodied the persevering spirit and inspiring vision that led Northern Ireland out of its darkest night of the soul -- Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume. Emerson wrote that "if one man plants himself firmly upon his principles and there abides, the whole world will come round to him." John Hume did that. At many difficult moments, the tactics of wily opponents of any peace agreement appealed successfully to divisive interests and supporters of violence, but John helped us all cling to the vision of a better future.

He constantly reached out across the sectarian divide to Catholic and Protestant alike, and appealed to their stake in a common peace and the better angels of this nature. Even after the bombing at Canary Wharf in 1996, when the ceasefire seemed at an end, John lifted us all up. That night, at a gathering at my residence in Dublin, when men and women were stunned and in tears, John stepped to the center of the room and led us all in a song of hope.

What John Hume taught me was similar to what my brothers President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taught me earlier -- that we need leaders who speak to our sense of hope, to the easily forgotten sense of fellowship that we all have with one another, and to our aspiration to live our lives in service to a worthy cause.

In one of his greatest speeches, John Hume offered this observation of America:

It is regrettable that the United States sees itself primarily as a military power and an economic power and not what it really is, a moral power.... It would be positive if the US were to remember the philosophy of its founding fathers. E Pluribus Unum--from many, we are one.... That is the message of real peace in the new world of the new century.

This year in the United States, the Democratic Party is blessed with two gifted candidates. As I assessed which candidate to support, I asked myself which of them embodies principles more than tactics and speaks the hopeful unifying message of John Hume.

Frequently in recent debates, Senator Clinton has told the story of the mother who was voting for her because she wanted her daughter to see a woman as president. As a woman, I found Senator Clinton's words appealing, but my experience in Ireland made me realize that first and foremost, we must choose a leader who appeals to what unites us, not what divides us. Race or gender should not be the basis for such a profound political choice.

I have also been troubled by the tactics and statements of some of Senator Clinton's supporters in appealing to divisive interests. And much has been made of Reverend Wright's controversial remarks. But Senator Obama, in contrast to divisive forces, has always spoken, as he did in his recent speech, of our common struggles as Americans. He presents a vision of an America "not riven by partisan divisions."

Some say this is a utopian dream that cannot be realized. But the Irish experience has taught me that if we don't believe, then we have nothing, and that what is possible is partly the result of what good leadership can inspire us to believe and try to do.

On my wall I have a poem by Nobel-Prize winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. It includes these enduring words:

History says, "Don't hope

On this side of the grave."

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

I feel a deep sense of admiration for President Bill Clinton. I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunity he gave me to serve our country and for his own indispensable role in the peace process for Northern Ireland. But as I think back on my brothers' lives and John Hume's words and example, I know that my experience, my conscience, and my heart all point to Barack Obama, the messenger of hope, who speaks to the same principle of unity and the common good that John Hume and my brothers believed in. He offers the right moral vision for America in our dangerously divided but increasingly interconnected world.