Support O' the Irish Dear to Clinton

Irish-American ties to the president prove important to '96 bid

CALL it the return of shamrock power.

Irish Americans are vying to make 1996 a repeat year for President Clinton - and boost their own political power.

In 1992, candidate Clinton gained early Irish support in resolving to follow a Northern Ireland policy independent of Britain's.

Now, with the administration playing a major role in the historic peace process there, ties between Irish Americans and the White House are tighter than at any time since John Kennedy lived on Pennsylvania Avenue.

For the president, that means growing support from a constituency that could help trumpet a foreign-policy success to a broader audience in next year's campaign, raise significant amounts of money, and deliver votes in key swing states. For Irish Americans, it means a cocked ear at the White House.

"I've been at this since the early '70s and have had access to local politicians, maybe some members of Congress," says Joe Jamison, senior researcher for the New York State AFL-CIO. "Now [Irish-American community leaders] have direct access to the White House. That is unprecedented."

The Irish, one of America's most assimilated ethnic groups, are hardly a cohesive constituency. They are 40 million strong, but perhaps only a few hundred thousand follow the nitty-gritty politics in their ancestral lands. But the Clinton campaign team isn't ready to give away any votes, particularly in battleground states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where Irish are concentrated.

Wooing the disenchanted

The traditional outreach of the Democratic Party to ethnic American communities is already under way. On Oct. 9, representatives of ethnic groups such as Irish, Croats, Italians, Arabs, and Slovaks strategized with the National Democratic Committee in Washington on how to target ethnic votes.

Pro-Clinton Irish Americans are aiming "to convince those who left the [Democratic] Party for Ronald Reagan to come home," says Brian O'Dwyer, a New York attorney who - like Mr. Jamison - attended the meeting.

The Irish traditionally voted Democrat, but in the 1960s grew increasingly dissatisfied with the party's liberal social policies. And as they grew more affluent, they followed the more general trend of suburban voters toward the Republican Party.

Clinton's foreign-policy success in Northern Ireland is key to wooing this segment of the white ethnic vote. "People don't just vote their pocketbook," says political scientist Sam Popkin of the University of California in San Diego. "An awful lot of people don't see any changes in their pocketbook, and that is when all these other issues ... matter a lot."

Irish Americans are eager to stress their clout and organizational skills. Niall O'Dowd, New York-based publisher of the Irish Voice, estimates there are 5,000 Irish-American groups nationwide; many are politically active.

Mr. O'Dwyer, the vice chairman of Irish Americans for Clinton-Gore in 1992, adds that his group raised some $1 million for the campaign - which partly came from "plugging people in" to $25,000 a person dinners in Eastern states such as New Jersey.

This time, he says Irish Americans will be savvier: A new effort, dubbed "The Shamrock Project," focuses on making the Irish American presence known at the National Democratic Convention, where they will also host a reception.

In 1992, the Northern Ireland issue was tainted by a decades-old guerrilla war between the Irish Republican Army and "loyalist" paramilitary groups that want Northern Ireland to remain British-ruled.

Now, peace has brought a surge of renewed interest in Northern Ireland, which "will be a higher profile issue in 1996 by a long shot than it was in 1992," according to former congressman Bruce Morrison, who is privately active in the peace process. "People were afraid to touch it because they were afraid they would be considered soft on terrorism."

As more people celebrate the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, though, some remain concerned that more Irish Americans are supporting a group that until recently engaged in terrorism. British sources say private American donations to Sinn Fein (political wing of the Irish Republican Army) could still be used to buy weapons, since the IRA has not yet dismantled its terrorist organization.

Trip to Northern Ireland

Although permanent peace hasn't been established, Clinton's upcoming visit to Northern Ireland in November could push the process along. And whatever Clinton's visit reaps abroad, it is sure to bring some benefits back home.

"As we find out every March 17, nobody in this country is anti-Irish," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. He says Irish-American votes will only play a marginal role in the presidential elections, but that Irish Americans can still give Clinton a boost.

They can "make it known that Bill Clinton, as president, has done a spectacular thing in Northern Ireland to help move the peace process. He is the hero of Northern Ireland; he is the equivalent of Jimmy Carter in Camp David ... if they can somehow get that out, it will appeal to a lot more people than just the Irish," Mr. Schneider says.

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