Clinton or Trump? I have to say the choice is an embarrassment

by Francesa Comyn

Sunday Business Post

August 21, 2016

Trina Vargo is hitting her stride talking about Pfizer, tax repatriation and the US elections, when I raise an old chestnut – is Hillary Clinton an unsung hero of the peace process in Northern Ireland, or has she overstated her role for political gain?

The question is met with a pause, some vocal hedging and the sound of off-the-cuff patter petering out. Then diplomacy. “All I can say, as somebody who was personally involved day-to-day in the peace process, in getting Gerry Adams a visa, she wasn’t on my radar as anyway seriously involved.”

The voice has slowed right down. Up until this point, Vargo, as head of the non-profit US-Ireland Alliance, has been enthusiastically setting out her vision for a modern bilateral relationship between Ireland and the United States, as first-world country peers.

Now she is thinking back to the 2008 Democrat primaries. “I remember, at the time, someone on her campaign trail said, if it weren’t for Hillary Clinton, there wouldn’t be peace in Northern Ireland. That’s just silly. If they would just stop with her own real interest, it’s fine. It’s good enough,” she says.

Clinton’s claim that she was “instrumental” to the peace process is often repeated. It was trotted out as fact by former first minister Peter Robinson when Clinton visited Northern Ireland as secretary of state in 2012, and it was cited last year as the reason the former First Lady was being inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Soon it will become a collective memory, in the US at least, whether it is true or not.

Vargo’s view on Clinton’s contribution to the peace process is worth hearing, for a couple of reasons. Firstly because, as foreign policy advisor to Senator Ted Kennedy, she was a key behind-the-scenes player in the Northern Ireland negotiations and has the vantage to comment.

Secondly, the Democratic candidate has been dogged by trust issues in her presidential campaign. The electorate is unsure whether she tells the truth. What does Vargo, a former aide to the Democrats who campaigned for her husband, believe? Is Clinton trustworthy? “That’s hard. Her numbers are really low on trustworthiness,” Vargo says, without really engaging with the question.

What is clear is that Vargo is decidedly cool on Clinton’s candidature. She points to the email controversy, potential conflicts of interest surrounding the family’s charitable foundation and Bill Clinton’s decision last June to board Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane for an impromptu meeting while his wife’s private email server was being investigated by the justice department.

“There seems to be this never-ending pattern of bad judgment with the Clintons and those around them. There’s no reason to suggest that’s going to change,” she says.

Vargo is among a sizeable block of the US electorate left disillusioned by her choices in the upcoming presidential election – Trump or Clinton. “I have to say it’s an embarrassment.” Her gut tells her Clinton should walk it, but in the aftershock of Brexit, there is a nervy feeling anything could happen.

“I think the wealth gap in this country is probably our biggest problem. I think it’s been a big factor in the support for Sanders and Trump,” she says.

“Trump’s demographic is clearly white working-class men, yet he is not really going to do anything for them. I think he’s all talk. He’s not going to build a wall [with Mexico]. He’s already backed off from his Muslim ban. He just says anything.”

These are, of course, Vargo’s personal views. The US-Ireland Alliance, the organisation she set up in 1998 post Good Friday Agreement to foster relations between the two countries in business, education and the arts, is non-partisan, she stresses. As far as the alliance is concerned, it really doesn’t matter who is president.

When we talk on the phone, the 54-year-old is in her office, just outside Washington DC. It is around 9am her time and, in the swapping of pleasantries, she tells me it’s already sweltering outside, in contrast to merely grey and a bit muggy in Dublin.

We discuss the George J Mitchell Scholarship programme Vargo set up to “connect generations of future American leaders to the island of Ireland”. Among this year’s crop of postgrad students are graduates from Harvard and Princeton. Members of the group will take their respective places at Trinity College, UCD, UCC, NUI Galway and The Lir theatre, also at Trinity, this autumn.

“In the last four years, there were 12 people lucky enough to be offered both a Mitchell interview to study in Ireland or a Rhodes interview to study in Oxford. Now, nine of the 12 went for the Mitchell, which is why Ireland should so value this – you’re getting our best and brightest leaders to come to Ireland. But if you look at the world university rankings, Oxford is in the top ten of every list. The top for Trinity is . . . well you have to look in the top 250,” she says.

This is a big concern for Vargo, of only marginally less importance than securing the long-term survival of her scholarship endowment which has a few million dollars sloshing around, enough to keep it going for the next few years.

“If you’re going to have at least one world-class university, a lot more money needs to be spent on third-level, and if the state can’t provide it, I don’t know how you don’t have something that is an equivalent of some tuition and some loans,” she says aware it’s political football.

Vargo is a realist. She takes the university rankings with a grain of salt, but they are there, and Irish universities keep dropping back from the competition.

She posits the question, if the price of education falls in Britain, post-Brexit, which institution is going to attract more foreign students – Oxford or Trinity?

For her, the fundamental mistake was abolishing third-level tuition fees in the 1990s when the Celtic Tiger was just cranking up. “While I love the idea of third-level education for everybody, I’m not sure that it is doable,” she says.

Vargo herself spent ten years paying off her student loan. From Pennsylvania originally, she went to the University of Pittsburgh, a state college, as an undergraduate and then completed a Masters in political science and international relations.

She dispels the myth that it’s who you know in politics. In 1987, she cold interviewed for the post of a junior staffer with Ted Kennedy and got the job. Two years later, Ireland got “dumped” on her as a brief. It would stay with her until she left to set up the US-Ireland Alliance in 1998.

She has credited Kennedy for inspiring her to set up the organisation. He would say in meetings: “Those Irish never get their act together like Jewish Americans do and Greek Americans do.”

In Vargo’s opinion, Ireland has been off the political agenda in the US since the 1990s when a huge amount of time, effort and support was rightly afforded the Northern Ireland peace process by Bill Clinton’s administration. No amount of what she once described as “embarrassing” “shamrockery” in the White House is going to change that.

Her theory is that the powerhouse of old Irish-America has dwindled. Images of immigrants sending money home to the “poor Paddy cousins” have gone and the generations that succeeded Tipp O’Neill and Ted Kennedy feel only a limited connection to their Irish ancestry.

“America has become so post ethnicity.” Vargo pauses a moment to sound a note of caution because she knows this is not a universally accepted idea. “People will say it is not true but when they do election polling and everything is broken down, you’re either white, black or Latino. White doesn’t get subdivided into Italian or Irish. We’re past that.”

When Americans think of Ireland they aren’t recalling the auld sod, they’re thinking of the billions of dollars in corporate tax revenues disappearing across the Atlantic – always a sore point in an election year.

“An American wouldn’t look at that positively any more than you would love it if I said: ‘Let’s do everything we can to have CRH make America their headquarters’,” she says. And in many ways that is good. That is progress.

So how to fill a cultural vacuum? Vargo believes if Ireland is to foster future ties with the US it needs big ideas with broad appeal beyond the diaspora. That is the purpose of the Alliance. And sometimes it strikes gold.

Ten years ago she set up the annual Oscar Wilde awards to honour the Irish in entertainment. “Around 2010, I first encouraged JJ Abrams, the guy who directed Star Wars, to start thinking about filming in Ireland. I made this pitch over a five-year period. I took the [Irish] Film Board in to see him twice. That takes time. He’s now shot the last Star Wars there, the next one has been filming there.”

Vargo doesn’t beat about the bush. With Tourism Ireland crediting Star Wars for projected soaring revenues of €4.4 billion from overseas visitors this year, she is happy to take credit for a highly lucrative introduction.

And if her views have made her a béte noire among certain sections of the diaspora (such as Niall O’Dowd’s online magazine IrishCentral.com), she appears unrepentant. She has been accused of being elitist and self-serving. She came in for particular criticism some years ago, for arguing that undocumented Irish in the US should not be singled out for preferential treatment.

Some of the rows have revolved around money. In 2005, when the International Fund for Ireland flagged its intention to wind down public funding, Vargo sought money from Congress for her own projects. The IFI subsequently had a change of heart but, as the process played out, Vargo was accused by Stella O’Leary of the Irish American Democrats of having “an irrational obsession with terminating the fund”.

“That’s ridiculous. Irrational means not agreeing with Stella O’Leary,” she says, before putting the boot into some of the IFI’s latter spends on propping up the North and border counties with $20 million of US taxpayers money every year.

“I’ll give you an example. There’s a really lovely café attached to the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, I’ve been to it. I don’t see how my taxpayer money buying that cafe has anything to do with the situation in Northern Ireland.”

Vargo doesn’t buy the argument that funding should be applied as a continuing balm for Northern Ireland’s sores. There comes a time when the place needs to stand on its own two feet financially.

“Northern Irish politicians often come to the US and say two different things to two different audiences. If I’m the investor they say that things are great, there’s peace, come and invest your money here, it’s safe to set up. Then they go to Congress and say that it could go back to the old days any day, you better give us some money,” she says.

“Nearly 450 people were murdered last year in Chicago in what amounts to gang violence. Explain to an American taxpayer why Northern Ireland is a scarier proposition . . . this rush to America every time there is an issue, I think is demeaning to the people of Northern Ireland,” she says.

Having voted to remain in the EU, Vargo is acutely aware of the difficulties facing the North particularly in relation to the possible reinstatement of the border, post Brexit. Sadly, she is fairly sure that the majority of people in Britain who voted to leave “don’t give a toss about Northern Ireland”. She is wary of an early border poll, though stresses she doesn’t care what result would be thrown up. The kicker is “the thing nobody really likes to say” – what her friends in Ireland talk about: whether Ireland really wants Northern Ireland.

As our conversation winds down, I ask Vargo about her plans. It turns out, she is nearly finished writing a book about US-Ireland relations drawn from her own experiences. And, of course, she intends to keep chipping away at building a sustainable future for her organisation. “I hope I can create this critical mass that cares about this relationship, but if it’s just a hamster-on-wheels endeavour, I can live with that.”


Reprinted with the permission of the Sunday Business Post.