In the White House, People Power Trumps Terrorism

Tom Wright

The Sunday Independent (Ireland)

For decades Sinn Fein had meticulously built a first rate organisation in the US. Last week, an amateur operation run on a shoestring and human spirit brought it crashing down.

When Robert McCartney's five sisters and fiancee arrived in America last Tuesday they were so unprepared that they ran into trouble at their first port of call.

After disembarking the plane, as theypresented themselves at immigration, a homeland security officer asked them to state the purpose of their visit. One said "We're here to see the President". The puzzled official replied "The president of what?" "Of the country." "Which country?". "This one". "Excuse me?" "Yes, we're here to see George, George Bush?" With that, they were taken away for secondary interrogation. Only when one of the sisters produced the number of a contact could the story be verified and apologies issued.

Once in Washington, there was no professional publicist or expensive public relations firm. Instead, friends of the McCartney family put them in touch with Ruairi McKenna, a 24-year-old native of Antrim and a manager of a fund-raising company in Washington DC. McKenna, with three phones in his pocket, fielded all media calls and ran the interview schedule for the duration of the McCartneys' stay, no mean feat given the insatiable demand by the world's press for access to the sisters (as of Thursday afternoon Google news showed that there were 1099 stories on the McCartneys' meeting with the President). McKenna, who Paula McCartney called "their diamond", was unpaid, skipping off work, and told me that he had to avoid the cameras, for fear of having his boss turn on CNN and find him double jobbing.
The McCartneys were particularly resentful of whispered allegations that they were puppets on a string, being manipulated by shadowy political figures. Paula felt that no such charges would be made if they were male; some chauvinistic dinosaurs simply could not accept that six ordinary women could be so motivated, determined, and successful. In fact, there was no mastermind or financier behind the curtain. They received some modest donations which offset but did not cover the trip. Media outlets were asked to pick up the bill for cab fares. All six stayed in a couple of hotel rooms in Jurys on Dupont Circle, two sleeping on the floor to save money.

This was grassroots campaigning at its most basic. And it achieved results almost beyond belief. Americans and foreign diplomats openly made comparisons with the popular uprising against Syrian rule in Lebanon. Here too, they said, is an example of people power trumping terrorism.

The McCartneys' honesty and conviction made a deep impact upon everybody who met them. Senator John McCain, who delighted them with a speech castigating the IRA, was particularly moved by their courage and made a point of telling Paula that if they faced any intimidation when they returned home they should call him directly and he would deal with it personally, using the FBI if necessary. Add in the full support of President Bush and Senator Clinton and in a few short days they received assurances of personal support from the current President and the likely nominees for the Republican and Democratic Parties in 2008.

As everybody began to unwind at the Ambassador's St Patrick's Day Party on Thursday night, it was abundantly clear that this was a moment of hope, not despair. Americans came not to bury the peace process but to save it. One could call it creative destruction, to tear down those parts of the process that have failed, particularly the ambiguity surrounding continued criminality, and rebuild it on more favourable terms.

The past week was a critical part of this effort, maximising the pressure on Sinn Fein and proving to them that not only do they have something to gain by abandoning terrorism for good but that they will also lose everything if they do not so change. In a few short days, America's image of Ireland was transformed. In echoes of George Orwell'sAnimal Farm, Sinn Fein finds itself resembling the oppressors of the nationalist community that it originally saw itself as resisting while six ordinary women emerge as the true heirs of the Sixties civil rights movement.

One should not let this moment pass without noting that this marks a major diplomatic triumph for Bertie Ahern. George W Bush and the wider American policy elite could have used this crisis to wash their hands of the peace process. Instead, they have seized this opportunity to stand full square behind the rights of ordinary citizens and demonstrate their commitment to a process that truly brings peace and justice.

In the midst of this dramatic shift in opinion Adams used words as best he could but to little effect. Washington's elite wanted deeds not words, bringing to mind Emerson's famous sentence "I cannot hear what you say because what you do thunders so loudly."

Tom Wright is an Irish journalist currently in America as a research fellow in international security at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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