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The Irish-American connection

Americans have a history of involvement in Irish politics from as recently as the visit between Bill Clinton and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to as far back as 1867 with a grass-roots, secret "brotherhood'' that formed in response to the Nationalist cause in Ireland and anti-Irish prejudice in the United States.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 23, 2000

Most people in the United States look at the troubles in Ireland the way we look at the civil strife in Kosovo or the conflict in the Middle East: an ancient, intractable, historical feud hundreds of years in the making. The Orange Order parades that have just ignited such violence in Belfast, Derry and Portadown celebrate victories won by Protestants over Catholics more than 300 years ago. Kevin Toolis, author of Rebel Hearts, a study of Irish Republicanism and a long-time observer of both Irelands, remarks that while other countries "can consign their pasts to the past, in Northern Ireland, the past plays out over and over in the present."

The Irish obsession with the past can add to the American sense of distance and detachment: It's tragic, but what can we do about it? It's their history; it's their war.

Actually, it's our history and our war, too. American involvement in Irish politics began long before Bill Clinton invited Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to the White House, and long before former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell stepped in to mediate between Unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to join the Irish Republic. In fact, most American interventions in the tangle of Irish affairs have been more in the direction of war than peace: the oldest Irish Republican organization in the world is not the IRA but America's own Clan na Gael.

"U.S. involvement in Ireland has been constant -- if generally at the grass-roots level," says Toolis. "Sometimes it has exacerbated divisions. But now the U.S. government has got involved, there's been a positive shift. George Mitchell is central. And Bill Clinton has made all the right moves, even by just appearing to care."

In his book The Troubles, Tim Pat Coogan writes, "Given American support, Ireland and England could be at peace. Ireland and England are both mother countries. There is a time in life when parents look to their children for support. That time is now."

Mother Ireland dispatched many of her children to America. Ulster Protestants began emigrating to the United States in the 18th and early 19th centuries and assimilated early, becoming, among other things, the backbone of the white small farm South. Catholic immigrants, who arrived mostly between the middle and end of the 19th century, held on to their Irishness more tenaciously. The brutality of Protestant Anglo-Irish landlords, the lack of civil rights for Catholics and the terrible potato famine impelled more than 1.5-million to flee to the United States between 1847 and 1854 alone. Their concentration in the cities of the northeast and their unassuaged anger against the British government made Nationalist organizing easy. An English cabinet minister in the 1880s assessed the problem: "In former Irish rebellions, the Irish were in Ireland. Now there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money."

In 1867, a group in New York City founded Clan na Gael, a secret "brotherhood" partly in response to a failed Nationalist uprising in Ireland and partly in reaction to virulent anti-Irish prejudice in the United States. But Clan na Gael's chief purpose was, and is still, to fight the British presence in Ireland.

Clan na Gael was an inspiration for later Nationalist groups such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which took root in Ireland itself. But the Irish groups always looked to the United States as a sort of training ground for the Nationalist cause. The revolutionary Maud Gonne and the poet William Butler Yeats both toured America soliciting donations to the IRB. In 1913, Sir Roger Casement raised funds in the United States for the Irish Volunteers, later the IRA. During the first World War, Casement also tried to get the Germans to help the Irish against the British and was executed in 1916 for his pains. But it was U.S. money that fueled the Easter 1916 rebellion and it was U.S. money that flowed to both sides in the bloody Irish Civil War.

Things haven't changed all that much for hardcore Irish-American Nationalists. Clan na Gael still collects American money for Irish Republican causes, though it experienced a schism over the Good Friday peace accord almost two years ago, which some say has diluted its effectiveness. Dorothy Robinson, a fourth-generation Irish American and one of the leaders of the splinter Clan na Gael, said at the time that her "core of hardliners" studied the agreement in which the British government promised a devolved government for Ulster, the Irish government gave up its constitutional claim to the six counties of the north and the paramilitaries ordered a cease-fire. They rejected it: "We saw nothing which would lead to a united Ireland."

Both branches of Clan na Gael have been accused of aiding the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which may have links to the so-called Real IRA, the breakaway terrorist organization responsible for the Omagh bomb in 1998, which killed 28 innocent bystanders, as well as another splinter terrorist cell, the Continuity IRA. The amount of money raised for Irish Republican causes in the United States remains mysterious, however. In 1998, the FBI estimated that American organizations might collect as much as $8-million a year, though Justice Department figures put it much lower, under $700,000 a year.

Noraid, the one-time bete noire of official American policy toward Northern Ireland, has fallen on hard times. Founded in 1970, Noraid's declared purpose was to aid Irish Republican prisoners, their families, and other "victims" of British rule. However, Noraid's largesse reached beyond widows and orphans. Michael Flannery, the founder of Noraid and a former member of the IRA's North Tipperary Brigade in the 1920s, was once caught running guns, and it seems clear that much of the money raised from Irish Americans went to arm the IRA. But these days Noraid's membership is split and diminishing. After the IRA cease fire in 1994 and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' decision to negotiate with all parties, many Noraid activists resigned in disgust. Now it seems Sinn Fein does not need them anymore. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the most hardline of Irish Republicans, is enraged over Adams' negotiations with the British: "We have lost the war."

This spring's Noraid dinner in New York was attended by only 200 activists, according to Niall O'Dowd, editor of The Irish Voice and an informal adviser to the Clinton administration on Irish affairs, down from over 1000 in past years. The new group, Friends of Sinn Fein, has taken over as the acceptable face of Irish American Republicanism and is raising a lot of aid money for Northern Ireland. O'Dowd recently wrote that Friends of Sinn Fein eclipsing Noraid "is an inevitable consequence of the modernization of the Republican movement."

Yet the biggest sea-change in American involvement in the Troubles results not so much from internal squabbling among Irish American Republicans or an outdated attachment to the armed struggle, but the decision of the Clinton administration to become committed to the peace process begun under the government of British Prime Minister John Major and still more vigorously pursued by Tony Blair, one of Clinton's closest foreign allies. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who invoked a misty faith-and-begorrah version of his Irish ancestry when courting Irish American votes but did next to nothing to foster peace in Ulster, Bill Clinton got seriously involved. According to a book by the former Washington correspondent of The Irish Times, Conor O'Clery, Clinton has been haunted by the Troubles since he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He connected the civil rights struggle in the South with the Catholics' struggle for civil rights in Ulster.

Clinton took a risk inviting Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, the former IRA men who now lead Sinn Fein, to the White House for talks. He took a risk in pushing Blair to defy the Ulster Unionists who have often held British governments hostage in the past and take steps to alter the Northern Irish culture that had denied Catholics civil liberties and economic opportunities. And he took a risk implicating American prestige in a conflict successive state department experts deemed intractable, an on-going civil war that has been flaring up sporadically since the Protestant William of Orange beat the Catholic King James II at Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Aside from a few freelance bombs and revenge beatings here and there in Northern Ireland, the risks have been paying off for Clinton, Blair, the Irish government and the people of Ulster. Gerry Adams used to say change in Northern Ireland would come about "with an armalite in one hand and the ballot box in the other." Now it seems the paramilitaries are prepared to drop the assault rifle, but only if the pressure from the British, Irish and American governments does not let up.

The American focus has shifted from government acquiescence in Britain's unshakable Unionism on the one hand and community support of the IRA through Noraid and Clan na Gael on the other, to a more nuanced, peacemaking politics. Just visiting the United States seems to make a difference for some of the warring parties. Alasdair McDonnell of the moderate-nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party and a representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, told the Boston Herald in 1998 that it's easier for opposite sides to negotiate in America: "At home we can talk a bit, but once we get abstracted out of our domestic situation, we can look at the problems more objectively."

Paul Hill, a former IRA man who is now married to Robert Kennedy's daughter Courtney, found himself in Boston in 1998, having a beer with Joe English, a former Loyalist paramilitary leader. Something about the setting dissipated the tension: "The war is over. And we've got to get on with it now, haven't we?"

All involved -- Sinn Fein, the moderate Unionists led by David Trimble, Tony Blair, and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern -- credit the personal diplomacy of Bill Clinton and the dogged patience of former Sen. George Mitchell as key to getting this far. The continued opposition of the traditional Irish American Republican groups has not derailed the slow-moving peace train. They still insist the armed struggle is the correct means of ridding Ireland of the British, and indulge in Oklahoma City-style paranoid fantasies about the British security forces having "a hand," as Clan na Gael's Dorothy Robinson put it, in the Omagh bombing. Some still try to smuggle weapons: in their South Florida trial this past June, three young men admitted running guns on the grounds that a state of war exists in Northern Ireland and that Catholics have a right to defend themselves against armed Protestant paramilitaries. Says one exasperated Northern Ireland Assembly member, "They're like the Cuban Exiles in Miami -- they can't stand for relations with the Great Enemy to be normalized." But the majority of Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland seem happy to have U.S. aid in diplomacy and security (the man chosen to oversee important police reforms in Belfast is a former administrator of the DEA) and now the help of former Finnish President Martti Artisaari and South African liberation leader Cyril Ramaphosa in supervising IRA arms dumps.

Nonetheless, there is always the potential for this internationally-crafted goodwill to collapse under the weight of old hatreds. This year the Protestant Orange Order has been more intransigent and more violent than any time in the past decade over marching through Catholic areas. The deal over policing the province -- painstakingly negotiated with George Mitchell, former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, and leaders of the Unionist and Nationalist parties -- is under stress over symbolism: will the force change its name from the Unionist "Royal Ulster Constabulary" to something more neutral? Will their badges continue to incorporate a crown, offensive to Nationalists as an emblem of British domination?

Peter Mandelson warned hardcore Orangemen that they were out of step with the majority of the people of Northern Ireland: "Opposition for opposition's sake gets absolutely nowhere." The same could be said to the intransigent Nationalist community in the United States. The genuine progress of the last eight years should be nurtured. If Bill Clinton is lucky, he will be able to count peace in Northern Ireland as the centerpiece of his foreign policy legacy. But the Six Counties remain volatile. Kevin Toolis says with a sigh, "Irish history is a series of victories that at the last moment dissolve into bitter defeat."

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