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Sunday 8 March 2009

Sorry, but Obama is simply not bothered about us 

The US president will do the shamrock photo but that's about it, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

In a month when angry demands are being made of Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown, among many others, to apologise for their contribution to our economic meltdown, I'm showing them how to say sorry. President Obama, I apologise for having ridiculed you for declaring March 2009 Irish-American Heritage Month and for alleging that you must have allowed the Clintons to put one over on you when your attention was elsewhere. For I have now learned that you are merely following in the footsteps of your three predecessors: it was in 1991 that Congress authorised George Bush Senior to issue the first annual presidential proclamation urging Americans thus to honour the Irish contribution to the making of the United States.

Before anyone gets over-excited, I have to share the bad news that in 1999 Bill Clinton -- never a man to do things by halves -- also declared March to be Women's History Month. What's more, the Irish are Paddy-come-latelys to celebratory months: in 1976 Gerald Ford gave presidential recognition to African-American History Month; Ronald Reagan in 1988 elevated into a month the Hispanic Heritage Week approved by Lyndon Johnson 20 years earlier; and George Bush in 1990 gave May over to Asian/Pacific Americans and November to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The proclamations say much about how different presidents saw the Irish contribution. Bush Senior spoke of the Irish origins of nine signatories of the Declaration of Independence, of naval and army exploits, of the Irish contribution to arts, education, government, business, science and agriculture, and singled out writers Eugene O'Neill and Edwin O'Connor. Clinton's first proclamation in 1993 added the 18 presidents with Irish blood and the Irish political legacy in New York, Boston and Chicago, tipped his cap to several living leaders like Tip O'Neill and Tom Foley and threw in Gene and Grace Kelly.

Seven years later, the Kellys had made way for Gregory Peck, but there were PC additions like the suffragist Leonora Barry and the labour organiser Mary Kenney O'Sullivan. Clinton's main focus was on "the Good Friday Accord. America remains committed to the Irish people as they continue working to forge a brighter future in their own land. The road ahead is long, but the promise of peace is still within reach".

In 2008, George W Bush went back to his dad's basics with the nine signatories, the military contribution and the addition of Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Gene Kelly was back, but balanced by John Wayne. In 2008, he was much briefer: no individual got a mention, but, he said, "we honour the service of Irish Americans in America's armed forces".

Obama clearly laboured over his long proclamation of February as National African American History Month. The history is "unique and rich", a "struggle for the recognition of each person's humanity as well as an influence on the broader American culture". Instead of Irish-American James Hoban, mentioned by Bush Senior and Clinton as architect of the White House and a major influence on the building of the Capitol, it was African-Americans who had designed Washington, given us jazz, "issued new discoveries in science and medicine, and forced us to examine ourselves in the pages of classic literature": collectively, they had worked "to remove the boulders of systemic racism and discrimination". Those singled out included Booker T Washington and Martin Luther King: the prose soared with dreams and promise and ideals and luminaries.

I doubt if Obama even read his proclamation on Irish-American Heritage Month, which gave a nod to the Irish search for liberty and the importance of their "rich traditions of home".

"Hungry but hopeful, poor but perseverant, Irish-Americans seized the opportunity to work hard, enjoy success, and pursue the American Dream", many by taking on "the difficult work of constructing American's infrastructure". There was a snappy list of walks of life in which they excelled, but no one was mentioned by name.

Look, however much we delude ourselves that there's no one as Irish as Barack Obama, the truth is that he has never had any interest in us and has even less now. Most of Irish-America was slavishly pro-Clinton, and as a gifted political operator himself, Obama knew that Ted Kennedy's embrace of him was purely pragmatic.

Poor Gordon Brown, desperately seeking Best Friend status with a man who could scarcely spare the time to pay more than cursory attention to him, tried pointlessly to please by throwing a knighthood to the historically anti-British Kennedy, who spent most of his political life using Northern Ireland as an electoral weapon in Massachusetts.

Obama will accept the shamrock and have the photo-op with the Taoiseach and that'll be it. The financial world is crashing round him, Pakistan and Afghanistan are a nightmare, and he and the Clintons are now on the same side. Sorry about this, but we don't matter. Get over it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards