By Jose Rodriguez
Barack Obama ran for President promising to bring “change” to Washington D.C., which turned out to be a winning promise. Even though Americans elected him to bring that change, there has been a shrill and loud portion of our society, motivated by partisan hatred, who have stopped at nothing to block his efforts to bring the change that Americans elected him to enact. Change is a frightening prospect for this segment of society, who respond with scurrilous allegations: Obama is really a Muslim; he hates America; he’s a socialist; he was not really born in this country; he’s a Nazi; he wants to kill old people; and on and on and on. People, like Rep. Joe Wilson, want to engage in that form of demagoguery in order to uphold the status quo. They want to shout down the President during an important speech, calling him a liar or contradicting him.
But Joe Wilson is not the first Wilson to shout at a President advocating for change during a speech.
In late November 1995, President Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to make an official visit to Northern Ireland. More so than any President before or since, Bill Clinton was heavily involved in the Irish peace process; Clinton even appointed former Maine Senator George Mitchell to be the first Special Envoy to Ireland (George Mitchell is now the Special Envoy to the Middle-East, where he hopes to broker a peace deal). The conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland seemed so intractable that no previous President wanted to expend any energy finding a solution. President Clinton, however, had made bold promises to the Irish community in the United States, and he intended to keep them. By going to Ireland, he hoped to jump start the failing negotiations between Catholics and Protestants, who had been locked in conflict (known as the Troubles) for decades. Before long, not only had Clinton fallen completely in love with the Irish, but the Irish fell head over-heels in love with the Clintons (Hillary benefited from this love during her Presidential run in 2008). That the leader of the free world would come and meet with Irish leaders and everyday people was an immense honor for them. Protestants and Catholics alike flocked by the thousands (culminating in a speech attended by 100,000 people in Dublin) to see and hear the President of the United States, who was there to advocate for change and peace.
While a majority of Irish on both sides of the conflict wanted change and peace in Northern Ireland, fringe elements within both communities wanted to uphold the status quo. They were the loudest and most violent, so they were successful, for decades, in prolonging the conflict. These people criticized the President’s visit, saying that he had no business being in Ireland, and that he certainly had no business interfering in the on-going negotiations.
However, as Clinton got out into the public, shook hands, hugged hundreds of people, shared stories, and even accepted a few beers (which the Secret Service quickly poured out), the Irish public were very warm and receptive to Clinton and his message of hope. The Irish flocked to Clinton by the droves, swarming him and enveloping him, wanting to touch him and be in his presence, as though they could be infused with his energy and power. In reality, it was the President who was feeding off their energy, driving him for nearly 48 hours with virtually no sleep. The Secret Service was alarmed by this obvious inability to maintain security, but the President was more than eager to drown himself in the sea of people. This was, as he put it, the happiest time of his life.
While in Ireland, President Clinton stopped at the Mackie factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was owned by a Protestant, but he employed Catholics and Protestants. This place was, ostensibly, a symbol for peace and co-existence, but many of the employees either belonged to the IRA or for Protestant para-militaries in their time off. Before Clinton spoke, two children gave speeches that told of their suffering, but also called for peace. After young Cathy Hamill brought the room to tears with the story of her father’s murder, Clinton took the stage.
President Clinton, wagging his finger and clenching his fist, proclaimed, “only you can decide between division and unity, between hard lives and high hopes. You must say to those who would still use violence for political objectives: ‘You are the past, your day is over!'” This was a bold statement, considering that those people were in the room with him. It was also an obvious play on the famous IRA slogan, which said “Our day will come.” Clinton was challenging these people to turn their backs on the past and to move forward toward change, toward peace.
Not everyone was receptive to his message of change.
Cedric Wilson, a Protestant leader of the Northern Ireland Unionist party, shouted, “Never!”
As Clinton promised to “walk with” them if they chose to “walk the path of peace,” Wilson continued to heckle President Clinton: “Never!” “Those who showed the courage to break with the past,” Clinton said, “are entitled to their stake in the future.” Again, Wilson shouted, “Never!” Clinton pointed out Wilson, the heckler, who stood for the past, not the future of Ireland.
“Peace must be waged with a warrior’s resolve– bravely, proudly, and relentlessly– secure in the knowledge of the single greatest difference between war and peace; in peace everybody can win.” The President received a standing ovation that seemed to last forever. The people of Ireland were resolute: they were rejecting the Wilsons of the world.
In the end, due to the tireless efforts of Clinton, Mitchell, and the interested parties in Ireland, there was a negotiated peace in Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (April 10, 1998) was not only supported by the Irish governments and the British government, but it was also supported by the Irish people through a referendum. The people made a
choice for peace, rather than protracted violence and conflict. Though in recent years groups in Ireland have tried to re-ignite the Troubles, the people have held fast to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. Hillary Clinton has even appointed Declan Kelly to be the U.S. Special Envoy to Ireland, and she plans to visit Northern Ireland next month to review the peace process and to give a speech about the threat to peace posed by para-military groups in Ireland. This focus on Ireland is a break from the Bush administration, who largely ignored Ireland and left the U.S. participation in the peace process to the State Department. Had they continued Bill Clinton’s level of involvement, the situation in Ireland might be less perilous.
In the end, in a round-about sort of way, there are Wilsons in our world who shout “You lie!” or “Never!” to people who are interested in change, or in making progress. They are defenders of the status quo. As our country struggles to make sense of the health care bills in Congress (while continuing to be raped by insurance companies), we should all, at least, agree that we want to move forward– that we all want change and progress.
And we should all agree to ignore all the Wilsons of the world.