[Sinn Fein]

19 April 1996

Tribute to Ron Brown and Chuck Meissner

By Sinn Fein Councillor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

This is a tribute written for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Assistant Secretary Charles Meissner for whom there was a church service in Belfast on this date.

It is by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (Sinn Fein councillor, Belfast City Hall) and he can be contacted by anyone who wishes to comment at mairtin@iol.ie

He is involved in lobbying on economic issues for Sinn Fein in Belfast and is a member of the City Council Economic Development Committee in the city.

He also wants to contact interested individuals who would add their weight to the lobbies he is involved in.

These include matters surrounding the International Fund for Ireland, fair employment, American investment, building links with Irish America to promote trade, investment and cultural arts bridges.

Reply to:

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
City Hall

Even in a land all too familiar with tragedy, it's difficult to come to terms with the bitter irony of the Bosnian plane crash which claimed the lives of Ron Brown and Chuck Meissner.

To their families and colleagues in the US, it must be the cruelest injustice: two men who spent the last eighteen months of their lives building peace in Ireland, effectively removing the threat of sudden death which hung over us all during 25 years of bloody warfare, perish, while the former combatants - in the Balkans and in Ireland - live on.

It might, however, in some small way, ease the pain of their loss to know how highly regarded were Secretary Brown and Assistant Secretary Meissner by all those whose lives they touched. For many of us too, the news of the air tragedy was a hammerblow.

The most powerful African-American in the US, Ron Brown knew what it felt like to travel at the back of the bus. He also knew that adversity could be overcome and that by showing there was a peace dividend in the form of jobs, the US could underpin a fragile peace process.

Your ancestors had travelled to American in coffin ships during the Famine, he told the assembled dignitaries at the first Trade and Investment Conference in the Europa Hotel in December 1994. But his forefathers, he reminded them, had arrived there in chains. Days later in Dublin, he insisted that discrimination in employment was the greatest brake on economic regeneration in the North. He told it as it was, but ensured his statements weren't viewed as rhetoric by presenting equality as the cornerstone of economic progress - profiting the businessman as much as the jobless. When he returned with President Clinton a year later, he took time out to bring the Presidential entourage to Springvale Training Centre on the peaceline at Springvale where, unfazed by the walkout of a unionist councillor, he cut the ribbon to declare the centre officially open before chatting with trainees and a group of primary school children from Irish schools across the North who presented him with a carved plaque.

Of course, he had another enchanting quality which enabled him to befriend and influence such a wide spectrum of political opinion here: charisma. I met Ron Brown in the company of Gerry Adams in early February this year during a party trip to Washington DC. The city was covered in a blanket of snow and it was thought originally that the airport mightn't open in time for Secretary Brown to make the flight from New York. But he sent word ahead saying he was determined to make our meeting. True to his word, he arrived on the first flight into the airport after it reopened that afternoon.

But he didn't meet our group immediately. As fate would have it, also waiting for Ron Brown that day was the Prime Minister of Croatia who had first call on his time. A handsome fashionplate of a man, Ron Brown had a magical charisma which you might encounter in a handful of people in your entire lifetime.

A senior player in the Clinton Cabinet, he listened attentively to a briefing from Gerry Adams on the peace process before responding. He said he knew that the entire process was fraught with dangers but insisted that, with the scrapping of the Mitchell Commission report by the British, the entire world was becoming increasingly aware which side right was on. He listened carefully to our pitch for increased economic aid, promised to ensure the Manufacturing Technology Partnership - linking the US and the North of Ireland - was located in West Belfast and pledged to use his influence to encourage US firms to set up shop here. There was no need to labour the issues: he had an intuitive sense of what was required to bring hope to the areas of greatest need.

That morning, a one-hour meeting I had arranged with Chuck Meissner had become a two-hour meeting and then a working lunch in the canteen of the Commerce Department building. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the issues and individuals he dealt with in Ireland and at times it seemed like he could have told you the location of every pothole on the Falls Road from Castle Street to Andersonstown. He could rattle off his Department's economic objectives in the peace process - inward investment, all-island economy, and community economic development - and then give an assessment of how each economic agency and key individual was measuring up to those objectives. But this work wasn't academic for him. He had a breathtaking empathy with the people whose lives he was trying to improve. He knew that economics were the most potent form of politics. From the start, he had reached out to community groups on both sides of the peaceline in Belfast, always ensuring they were included as full participants in the debate about job creation, and this at a time when the official government departments were giving community representatives a wide berth.

We spent at least half of our time shooting the breeze, discussing American and Irish politics, touching on the dangers of political life for Sinn Fein activists before the ceasefires - with an unashamed selfishness I now regret - and coming back always to the need to decommission mindsets.

In the hour break before our meeting with Ron Brown, I spotted in a local bookstore Pete Hamill's tour de force, A Drinking Life, a powerful tale of Irish-America by a Belfast exile. Later, as we left the meeting with Ron Brown, I made Chuck a present of the book. I hope he got a chance to read it because it speaks sublimely of the search for humanity and equality.

In Irish, we say as a tribute to the dead, cuirfidh mé cloch ar a charn - literally, I will place a stone on his funeral mound. Today (April 19) at St George's Church in Belfast the people of this city will lay their stone on the funeral mound of Ron Brown and Chuck Meissner. But we will do so again in early May - in the pragmatic and constructive way both men would have appreciated - when Belfast City Council hosts a high-powered economic regeneration conference to continue the work of building peace with jobs. Chuck Meissner was slated to be the key speaker at the conference. And, despite now their absence from the official programme, I suspect that both he and Ron Brown will be making their presence felt.

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