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May-20-2011 15:58printcomments

Putting Obama's Irish Visit Into Context

Most Irish people support change in Middle East policy and more specifically want the USA to change its blind support for Israeli war crimes and the suppression of democracy in Palestine.

Fiachra Ó Luain
Fiachra Ó Luain shortly after last year's deadly Flotilla attack by Israel international waters.

(DUBLIN) - Like thousands others I travelled to Washington DC in January ‘09 to witness Barack Obama replace George W. Bush as President of the United States of America. I did so as the son of a man asked to kill and be killed for the folly of the Vietnam War and as somebody who had resisted Bush’s use of Shannon Airport for the wars of aggression in the Middle East and the torture of suspects since 2001.

On that occasion I gave one of the four invitations given to me to Dr. Edward Horgan of Shannonwatch, with whom Ted Kennedy scheduled a meeting after the inauguration. Our hope was that Obama, as a man of law would recognise and act on our concerns about Irish citizens being made complicit in the worst war crimes of the 21st century.

On Cape Cod a few days beforehand I had said to Governor Deval Patrick and those convened a meeting of the Democratic Party grassroots, that those of us who demand an end to Shannon Airport’s part in Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ were not anti-Americans but rather loyal friends and cousins who were not afraid to tell the truth and act to sober up a post 9-11 USA that was drunk with rage.

From Ted Kennedy’s balcony in the Russell Building I watched Bush, Obama and their entourages file out of the Capitol building and to be honest I was more interested in seeing Bush’s helicopter leave the centre of power than rapturously welcome his replacement. I had already become disillusioned with Obama since he pledged his support for Jerusalem to become the undivided capital of Israel at a crucial pro-Israel AIPAC meeting during the ‘08 campaign. However I was willing to give him a chance after Bush. One of Kennedy’s aides told us that the Senator had collapsed at the luncheon but we were free to stay around until the end of the day’s celebrations; some politicians will do anything to get out of a meeting with Ed Horgan! We came back the next morning and left a copy of Veteran for Peace Pat Scanlon’s CD to listen to as he recovered and a black shamrock badge, explaining that it represented opposition to the sort of Irish-American interaction we witnessed under Bertie Ahern and George Bush.

That day we had a meal in the Foggybottom home of Rosie O’Neill, daughter of the late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. When I had asked if Ed Horgan could come too she said that he was not welcome because she disagreed with his stance on Shannon. When I politely asked her to elaborate she quite bluntly said “The United States helped the Irish during the famine and now Ireland should help America after 9-11”. I didn’t disagree that we should help contribute to post 9-11 America but disagreed on this meaning becoming submissive and unquestioningly abandoning our morals.

Later, I took the train to Philadelphia where I visited ancestral haunts such as Germantown and downtown Philly. There I learned how one of my forefathers, Benjamin Fuller from Clara in Co. Offaly, was the first man to trade between the United States and China, travelling East around Africa, before the Suez and Panama canals were built! At that time the tensions between England and “the colonies” meant that flying the American flag on your vessel could have been seen as an act of sedition against the Crown. However, when Philadelphia merchants like Fuller decided to throw in their lot with George Washington, it meant the beginning of the end for the English Crown in “the colonies” and the start of the United States of America in the wider world. Benjamin Fuller also gave George Washington £2000 to help pay for the ‘winter soldiers’ of the Continental army, a name that 200 hundred years later my Philadelphia-born father would call himself along with other Vietnam Veterans Against the War who camped in Valley Forge to call Nixon on his corruption of the American ideal.

Reflecting on this and reacting to the logic of Rosie O’Neill’s argument as to why we should be helping Bush’s ‘War On Terror’, I realised that Irish peace protestors should emphasise how Irish history in America is one that pre-dates the Famine, and we will not forever address the United States with cap-in-hand just because some of our exiles found rough refuge there. The fact is that we are prominent among the authors and practitioners of that original American independence and therefore have even more of a responsibility to call today’s United States to account for any erring from their ideals.

Returning to Cape Cod from my 2009 American Odyssey, I took a trip up to Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, one of my favourite pieces of American coastline and imagined the first ships setting sail for the east flying the American flag and wondered if the likes of Benjamin Fuller knew what that same flag would mean to the people of My Lai or Fallujah. I could only hope that Barack Obama would change that.

Living back in Clara now myself with a renewed interest in history I recently found out that one of the first benefactors of Gugilelmo Marconi himself was another of the Fullers’ Clara neighbours. Robert Goodbody invited Marconi to come and work in Clara to demonstrate his research when he was still a student in Trinity College in Dublin before backing him with cash to further develop his radio technology. Thus, Goodbody is another example of an Offalian who fostered those who shaped the modern world. By giving some of his wealth towards supporting a Marconi who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, Goodbody helped create the technology that allowed Theodore Roosevelt send the first ever transatlantic broadcast to Edward VII of England in January 1901.

Stranger than fiction Order Now

Therefore I think that while we host President Barack Obama here in Offaly and across Ireland, we should not do so with bowed heads and feverish adulation but instead take the opportunity to remind him that Irish history in America did not begin with the famine. We helped build the place before that and the basis of our future relationship will not be one where we keep our mouths shut when the USA behaves towards others just as England behaved towards us for all too long.

To put Obama’s visit in more recent context, most Irish people do support a change in Middle East policy and more specifically want the USA to change its blind support for Israeli war crimes as well as the suppression of democracy in Palestine. Though I am not convinced that the ethnic delineation of two states in Palestine/Israel is the best solution for the long-term future of the Middle East, his recent speech declaring support for the 1967 lines is much more than we have heard from an incumbent president seeking re-election in recent years. If Ireland and Irish America decide to show support for the Democratic Party candidate next year, it should be on the basis that we support an American move away from the conquest of the Middle East and towards sustainable industry and technology that would allow our cousins in the United States put the decadent phase of its recent history into the past forever.

Although many of us think that Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East fell short, we should be aware that it probably means that the most powerful lobby group in Washington, AIPAC, will now actively oppose his re-election. If we could show a US president that as demographic group Irish Americans support him on the basis that he stops sending people to die in resource wars and demand an end to the occupation of Palestine, our numbers could easily counterbalance any movement against him from the pro-Israel lobby. In doing that we could help stop AIPAC from always dictating their demands to US presidents and again contribute to a more independent America and “benign” future relationship with the world.

Fiachra Ó Luain is an Irish peace activist who was a crewmember on last year’s “freedom flotilla” to Gaza, he spoke about his experiences at Brown and Boston Universities in recent months.

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