Bill Clinton, Ireland, and SF Politics (August 13, 1997)

Limerick, Ireland — On Cecil Street in the ancient fortress city of Limerick, there is a pub called Bill Clinton, named after the American you-know-what.

Above the doorway Irish and American flags are wrapped in an embrace by the sturdy breeze coming off the mighty Shannon River, a block distant. Inside the bar, Ed Emerson — White House staffer and Bill Clinton’s advance man for his triumphant “roots” trip to Ireland, which jump-started the off-again-on-again peace process — was reading Monday morning’s paper.

A headline in the Irish Times caught his fancy: “Renewed fears that Older dikes may fail.” Emerson shook his head. “Older dykes may fail?” he said, slightly misreading the print. “What are they talking about? Everyone knows that older dykes are the best!”

Only a man steeped in the gender politics of San Francisco would have such a take.

Emerson, in fact, has a master’s degree in San Francisco politics, a real piece of paper from San Francisco State. He came to Frisco light years ago to help elect Tom Bradley as the first black governor of California and Jerry Brown as senator; he succeeded only in helping re-elect Phil Burton to his last term in the House before Burton died. Along the way Emerson became a veteran of the Proposition M and district-election wars that forever reshaped the city’s physical and political horizons. He ran Dick Hongisto for mayor and Gwen Craig for supervisor. He’s been there.

Monday he was in Limerick, where Bill Clinton has the bar named after him (an Irish honor much more to be prized than the presidential-library game). Emerson was last in Ireland two years ago, advancing Clinton’s big visit, which changed political life in the British statelet in the north.

Emerson facilitated the historic handshake between Clinton and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, in a bakery on the Falls Road, the Catholic ghetto in Belfast. The picture of that handshake was worth 10,000 words of lectures on equality to the entrenched unionists of the north, who until then assumed that by the grace of God the statelet carved out of Ireland in 1920 would remain, in perpetuity, a privileged enclave of Protestantism with a down-trodden Catholic minority. After this, a sense of reality began to creep into the unionist ranks — the United States, with its large Irish American population, was no longer willing to let British governments and marching Orangemen in sashes control the agenda in Northern Ireland. There simply had to be progress toward real equality, and with equality would come the peace that the majority, composed of both Catholics and Protestants, wanted.

“There was such optimism, it was literally thrilling,” Emerson said of Clinton’s provocative Irish trip, “People were lined up 20 deep on both sides of the road coming in from the airport to Derry (Note: It’s Derry, not the colonial British name Londonderry used by the British press and many US newspapers, including the SF dailies). They sensed a real chance for real change was coming with Clinton.”

“There was one old Catholic woman perched on a stone wall along the route. I told her that she might fall down, and she said, ‘Sure, if I fall, I’ll fall right into his arms’,” Emerson said. When Clinton came by she managed to lean out, enabling him to shake her hand. She almost swooned, Emerson said, and RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland paramilitary police force, with a history of sectarianism) immediately took her aside for questioning.

The peace process that began with 1994 IRA ceasefire unraveling after two years of stalling by the British government under John Major, who needed Northern Ireland’s Protestant votes in Parliament to keep his government from failing.

Now there is a new IRA ceasefire, coming after impressive Sinn Fein victories at the polls, and a new British government under Tony Blair (with a huge majority in Parliament), which has recognized as bogus the “decommissioning” of IRA arms, an issue that many in the US press still fail to understand.

Emerson pointed out that it was being noted in the Irish papers but not in the US media that Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein had made an enormous change in the traditional IRA position that peace could come only with a reunited Ireland. They are now prepared to enter peace talks that could leave, for the present, a reformed united Ireland still within the United Kingdom, and it is now the unionists who are talking about attending the peace talks.

Emerson was back in Ireland to attend the wedding last weekend of the niece of another political San Franciscan — Joe O’Donoghue of the Residential Builders Association. Emerson had worked with O’Donoghue on Proposition H, which blocked high-rises from the waterfront. Emerson shared old San Francisco political war stories with other San Franciscans who came over the wedding of Sheila McCoy, the daughter of O’Donoghue’s sister, Mary McCoy, and regaled wedding guests with this story of San Francisco politics. He recalled the late John Maher in an extended political lecture at the Dover Club defining San Francisco politics thus: “San Francisco has the craziest politics in the nation. There’s no place like it. The other day a guy was arrested because he performed a human sacrifice on the street without a permit.” The Irish wedding guests understood that. Kind of. It may be harder for the world to understand the politics of San Francisco than the politics of Northern Ireland.

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