Belfast Telegraph

US tornado blows an ill wind towards Irish funding

Last Wednesday, tornados tore across western and central Massachusetts, devastating several small towns and the city of Springfield - and inadvertently hurling yet another potential obstacle into the International Fund for Ireland's path towards renewed US funding.

Far away from the famed Tornado Alley of south-central America, the Bay State isn't accustomed to many tornados.

Its last lethal twister killed three people in 1995. The worst was in 1953, when one packing 250mph winds ripped across 46 miles of Worcester county, leaving 94 people dead.

Last week's storms weren't as cataclysmic. Nevertheless, four people lost their lives, scores were injured and hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed.

In Springfield, the state's third-largest city, one twister cut a 10-block-wide swathe of destruction.

The Springfield Armory, created during the Revolutionary War, was America's first. It was one of the country's top suppliers of rifles and ammunition to the US army until its closure in 1968. Smith -amp; Wesson handguns also got their start in Springfield, as did world-renowned Indian motorcycles.

Springfield has a sizable Irish-American population and one of Congress's most active members on Irish issues, Richard Neal, represents the area in the House of Representatives.

Invited by Neal, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams made Springfield his second stop during his first extended US trip in September 1994.

Two years ago, Irish president Mary McAleese also visited the city to sing the praises of Neal and his track record on Irish issues.

Dublin and Belfast know well Neal's Capitol Hill value. Along with New York congressmen Peter King (Republican), Joseph Crowley (Democrat) and Vermont Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, he's been lobbying for continued US IFI funding in 2012.

During the tortuous 2011 budget deal that was finally hammered out seven weeks ago, deficit-obsessed House Republicans completely axed the IFI's $15m allocation.

Since 2000, the IFI has been an 'earmark' in the federal budget, meaning it's received a precise budgetary allotment. In 2010, for example, funding was $17m.

Foreign aid is less than 1% of the US budget and the IFI's portion of that is a tiny fraction. But, in an effort to prove they're more fiscally responsible than the Democrats, Republicans - who are just as guilty of using earmarks to funnel federal cash to their districts - have launched a PR crusade against earmarks. Tiny ones, like the IFI, are easy prey.

Ironically, after House Republicans 'zeroed-out' IFI funding for the 2011 budget (which continues until October), the axed $15m was simply returned to the Executive branch - where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff can dole it out as they see fit. And, although no one in Washington is saying so publicly, given Hillary's soft-spot for Ireland, it's likely a fair bit will eventually make its way to Ireland.

As for 2012, although Neal, King, Crowley and Leahy are hoping to secure $17m for the IFI, the Obama administration's official request - for $2.5m - seems a more likely allotment, if one is secured at all.

Given the scope of destruction wrought by tornados and violent thunderstorms in his district last week, in the near term at least, it's likely that congressman Ritchie Neal won't have as much time to devote to fighting the IFI's corner.

Neal, like all politicians, knows how to multi-task. He, or his staff, will find a way to weigh in on any upcoming IFI developments.

But for the time being, his own constituents' troubles will be a far higher priority.

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