There was a time, believe it or not, when Peter King was even more controversial than he is at the current moment, in the wake of his first hearing last week on radicalization of American Muslims.
“When I first came here in 1993, the speaker, Tom Foley, wouldn’t allow me to go to the [Friends of Ireland] Speaker’s Lunch, because I was considered too radical,” King told the Observer yesterday.
At the time, the Irish peace process was still very much in doubt, and King’s outspoken support for the Irish Republican cause made him persona non grata.
Eighteen years later, after Republicans re-took the House in January, King was appointed the chairman of the Friends of Ireland, and yesterday he hosted a number of friends and former enemies in private meetings, and later, at a big lunch.
Among them was Peter Robinson, the first minister of Northern Ireland, who once sued King–along with the station who carried his remarks–for defaming him on British television.
“They gave him like 50,000 bucks or something and he put an extension on his house, so he always thanks me for that,” King said. (In fact, it was the television station that paid up. “I was totally right,” he still maintains. “But things you can say in this country you can’t say there.”)
Now, King hosts him for friendly meetings in his office, along with other formerly controversial figures like Martin McGuinness, who British intelligence was rumored to consider one of the top leaders of the I.R.A.
But no one quite epitomizes the change as much as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
“The first time he came on St. Patrick’s Day in 1995, it was like World War III,” said King, who had been allowed to attend the lunch, after President Clinton invited Adams to the White House at the last minute, much to chagrin of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“One of the great moments at that lunch: I was sitting at Adams’s table, which was about 10 feet away from Bill Clinton. But Gingrich didn’t want him–they’d never met or had a handshake–and Gingrich did not want it to happen at his lunch while he was there. So we had about an hour of tense negotiations back and forth as to how they would actually shake hands.”
Clinton was looking down awkwardly at Adams, who was looking up awkwardly at Clinton. Eventually, they determined a Nobel Peace Prize winner would broker the handshake.
“That’s how far we’ve come,” King said. “You had Adams sitting in the room, almost in isolation and then today he’s walking around like he owns the place.”
“They do all this stuff in the New York Times and the media and everything– all the British people, and the Irish people, were getting a big kick out of that. Because that worked its way back to Ireland. And they said, ‘If you saw what this guy was doing behind the scenes…,” King said.
“One high-ranking British official said, ‘I saw that stuff about you in the papers, send ’em my way and I’ll tell ’em what you did to help bring peace to Northern Ireland.'”
As part of his official duties, King descended the Capitol steps with President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and the current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, as bagpipes blared in the background.
King said there wasn’t any discussion of his own recent controversies, from the speaker or the president. And he only got the usual grief from Vice President Joe Biden.
“Joe Biden always has a thing, whenever he sees me, that I’ve committed, for an Irish Catholic, the unforgivable sin of being a Republican,” King said. “It never fails.”