Institutional memory helps us to deal with reoccurring events in our historical timeline. The current pull of ISIS on young middle class Muslims mirror the IRA pull on Irish Americans a few decades ago. We’re produces PBS article that may jolt some memories.
The Irish diaspora, especially those who settled in the United States, have played an intregal part in the Troubles. But their influence, both for good and bad, has generally been exaggerated.
However impressive it sounds to say that there are, according to the 1990 U.S. Census, some 40 million Irish-Americans, the reality is that most of them think IRA stands for an Individual Retirement Account.
It is true that a small portion of Irish-Americans have always supported the Irish Republican Army, but the importance of the money they raised and the weapons they procurred for the republican movement tended to be exaggerated – mostly by the British, Irish and American governments in an attempt to persuade Americans not to contribute to IRA support groups.
For years, republican leaders acknowledged what they really wanted was American political influence to put pressure on the British government to seek a settlement. But that influence, especially in the White House, was withheld as long as the IRA was determined to carry on its violent campaign unconditionally. As the leadership of Sinn Fein sought to distance itself from violence, however, many Irish-American supporters of the IRA remained wedded to the idea that only violence would bring about a united Ireland. As the republican movement became increasingly sophisticated politically, there was no corresponding political change among most of the IRA’s traditional supporters in the United States.
For a quarter century, the IRA attracted a core of followers in the United States who were loyal and dedicated but incapable of delivering the kind of political support that came to be seen as essential in bringing about the IRA ceasefires, first in 1994, then in July 1997. Part of the problem is that American supporters were often as right-wing as the Provisionals were left-wing. Bernadette Devlin scandalized IRA supporters in Boston in the early 1970s when she announced that she was more comfortable with blacks in Roxbury than she was with Irish-Americans in South Boston. The domination of the support groups by older, more conservative Irish-Americans made it impossible to form coalitions with younger, more radical activists who worked for groups in Central America and South Africa.
In 1969, as TV images of Catholics being attacked were beamed back to Irish Catholic enclaves in Boston and New York, hats were literally passed around pubs from Southie to Woodside in Queens. Fundraising for the IRA, or at least for IRA prisoners, peaked whenever the British were seen to do something outrageous, such as when British soldiers shot 14 civil rights marchers dead on Bloody Sunday in 1972 or in 1981 when Margaret Thatcher allowed the hunger strikers to die. But the fundraising was dwarfed by the millions that were raised by the mainstream Irish charities, especially the American Ireland Fund. Contrary to popular belief, the IRA didn’t rely on American money or weapons. And they couldn’t rely on American political support, which was limited at the beginning of the Troubles and continued to shrink as the IRA campaign dragged on and most influential Irish-Americans, especially politicians, distanced themselves from the IRA.
Because many Sinn Fein leaders had served time for IRA activity, most of them were barred from entering the US, meaning the political development of the republican movement progressed at different paces on either side of the Atlantic. But while IRA support groups remained outside the political mainstream, a growing number of Irish-American politicians who were opposed to IRA violence became equally opposed to the status quo. More sophisticated and unwilling to be dismissed as IRA sympathizers, they challenged the British and Irish governments to do something to challenge the paramilitaries to put down their weapons.
At Tip O’Neill’s urging, President Ronald Reagan encouraged Margaret Thatcher to try something new. In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the Dublin government was given a say in the running of Northern Ireland in exchange for accepting that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority living there voted otherwise, became the bedrock on which the current peace process was built.
For a decade, Dublin and London fine-tuned their diplomatic mission, but there was no hope of a settlement until the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries called a ceasefire. American influence was essential in helping to bring it about.
Bill Clinton, the first non-veteran to become president since the end of World War II, brought to his job a post-Cold War vision in which the U.S. State Department’s hands-off policy in Northern Ireland, in deference to Britain’s role as the U.S.’s most important military ally, didn’t hold sway anymore. Clinton took an interest in Northern Ireland because he thought his administration could make a difference, and, of course, reap the political benefits if it did.
With John Hume’s approval, Clinton’s decision in early 1994 to grant Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, a visa in the face of fierce British opposition convinced many in the IRA leadership that the American card could be played to hold the British to negotiations.
While Adams and other charismatic republicans have gotten most of the attention in America, it is the SDLP leader whose opinion matters the most in the real corridors of power in Washington. It was Hume who assured Ted Kennedy who assured Bill Clinton that the Adams visa would pay off down the road. It appeared to when, in August 1994, the IRA called an unconditional ceasefire. But Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland never believed the IRA was sincere. In fact, the IRA continued to train and target, leading Adams to famously note that, “They haven’t gone away.” To some, this was a realistic plea for engagement, to others a threat. British Prime Minister John Major, depending on unionist votes to keep his fragile government in power, was never able to convene all-party talks, insisting with the unionists that the IRA had to begin disarming first. Convinced they were being toyed with, and worried about dissidents in its own ranks, the IRA went back to war in February 1996.
When they came to the US after their own ceasefire in October 1994, loyalists were stunned by the welcome they got from Irish Americans. “I thought they were all Provos,” Joe English, the former loyalist paramilitary leader admitted at Boston College. He and other loyalists had believed the myth that most Irish Americans were IRA sympathizers. That myth, no doubt delayed by years the development of a real peace process.
Mainstream unionists are more suspicious of American involvement, spotting closet nationalists at every turn. But even they have begun to routinely travel to Washington to seek support. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble announced that during a White House conversation this month, President Clinton assured him that the IRA would not get a third bite at the apple. But there is a quid pro quo: the White House expects Trimble to stay in the talks and make a good-faith effort to reach a settlement.
Tony Blair’s overwhelming majority, and willingness to put arms decommissioning to the side, produced another IRA ceasefire in July, this time with America’s influence playing far less of a role. Given that George Mitchell, the former US Senate Majority Leader from Maine, is the chairman of the ongoing talks in Belfast, American influence continues. But diminishing American influence could actually signal a sophistication and maturity to the peace process. In fact, while the Clinton administration has pledged support,
it has acknowledged for the last few years that it is up to the British and Irish governments and the various parties on the ground in Northern Ireland to sort out their differences and reach a compromise. If the Irish, the British and the two traditions in Northern Ireland can demonstrate an ability to carve out a settlement, the Americans will become less relevant, all for the good.
Kevin Cullen has been a reporter for The Boston Globe since 1985. In August 1997 he opened the Globe’s Dublin bureau, which marked the first time a major American newspaper has based a staff reporter in Ireland. For more than a decade, Cullen has traveled to Northern Ireland several times each year, writing about the conflict. He has spent more time in, and written more about, Northern Ireland than any reporter for an American newspaper. In 1995, he was awarded a citation of excellence by the Overseas Press Club of America in the interpretive reporting category for his coverage of Northern Ireland.
Cullen is a regular contributor to Fortnight, a Belfast-based magazine on politics and the arts, and is a frequent commentator about Anglo-Irish affairs on National Public Radio and BBC radio. His work on Ireland has appeared in numerous American and European magazines and papers. A Boston native, he was graduated summa cum laude from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and studied at Trinity College, Dublin.
Originally published on Pbs