When Gerry Adams addressed an event organised by Friends of Sinn Féin, the party’s US fundraising arm, by videolink this summer, he told his audience that Irish unity was “now a doable project, folks”.
He urged those on the call to “come forward, lobby, be active, campaign – help the Friends of Sinn Féin so that we can decide our own future”, before adding:“You can be the Irish-American that comes home to a free, united, peaceful and prosperous Ireland.”
The discussion on Irish unity, co-hosted by former New York congressman Joe Crowley, was one of several online events held by Sinn Féin in recent months as it ramps up its outreach in the United States.
The emergence of Northern Ireland as a key sticking point in the Brexit negotiations has served to propel the North back into focus in the US, 20 years after the Belfast Agreement.
This was underlined by the visit of Nancy Pelosi and congressional leaders to Northern Ireland last year, shortly after Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections.
The appointment of several Irish-American Democrats to the Ways and Means committee, which oversees trade matters in Congress – including Richard Neal as chairman – ensures that Irish interests will be accounted for in any potential future trade pact between Britain and the US.
Most of the Irish-Americans I have met are people who are completely committed to the peace process
As Brexit negotiations continue, attention is now focusing on the question of Irish unity and the issues of partition the discussions have once again highlighted.
Sinn Féin, in particular, sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to progress the cause that has underpinned its movement.
“If there’s one issue that unites all people who are of Irish-American heritage it is the notion of a free and united Ireland,” says Sinn Féin’s North America representative Ciarán Quinn. “Talking to Irish-America, it has become clear that this is no longer a rhetorical position, that unity is fully achievable and doable in the next couple of years.”
Quinn took over in January from Rita O’Hare, the veteran republican who was Sinn Féin’s representative in the US for decades. Given Sinn Féin’s controversial relationship with elements of Irish-America in the past, and Noraid’s fundraising for the IRA during the Troubles, what is the approach of modern Irish-America?
“Most of the Irish-Americans I have met are people who are completely committed to the peace process, and they see that there’s a completely democratic pathway that is now open,” says Quinn “That’s what’s exciting them. There’s a way to achieve Irish unity.”
Sinn Féin operates a successful fundraising operation in the US. Latest filings lodged with the US government showed Friends of Sinn Féin raised $295,000 (€262,000) in the six-month period to April – the vast majority of which came from an annual fundraising dinner held each November. The party says the funds are used to run its US operations and to organise visits and events. The use of foreign funding for political activity in Ireland is illegal.
How the Irish political establishment has dealt with Sinn Féin’s continuing influence and grassroots activities in the US has been a challenge for successive governments, Irish embassies and consulates.
Taoisigh and government ministers travel regularly to the US for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations and other business-focused visits, while individual politicians like Fianna Fáil’s Mark Daly, former senator Billy Lawless and former Fine Gael TD John Deasy have strong relationships on Capitol Hill.
But Sinn Féin’s leaders have name recognition that many other Irish politicians lack. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald addressed the national convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, one of the oldest Irish-American groups in the US, in July. She had been due to travel to Florida for the event, a measure of the sway Sinn Féin continues to have in Irish-America.
The continuing allure of Adams was in evidence last October when Neal was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Irish-American Democrats in Washington. While senior political figures from the US and Irish political sphere were present – including Pelosi and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, who was in town for the World Bank-IMF meetings – the biggest cheer of the night went to Adams.
Similarly, during the 2018 St Patrick’s Day celebrations in New York, it was not then taoiseach Leo Varadkar but Adams who stole the limelight at a breakfast event hosted by mayor Bill de Blasio at his official residency. Toasting the former Sinn Féin leader, de Blasio proposed St Patrick’s Day be named “Gerry Adams Day” in New York, as Varadkar looked on.
Irish-America was ahead on Ireland by seeing that there was a moment, an opportunity for peace at that time. We were proved right
The performance of the still relatively new Government in Dublin is being keenly watched in the US, particularly given Sinn Féin’s strong showing in February’s election. Comments by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, firmly dampening down the prospect of an imminent Border poll, caused something of a stir.
Niall O’Dowd, the founder of Irish central website and long-time observer of Irish-American affairs, agrees Martin’s stance has disconcerted some in Irish-America. In his view the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties have largely been absent in America, while Sinn Féin has maintained its links over the years.
O’Dowd rejects the notion that Irish-America is out of touch with what is happening on the ground in Ireland.
“Without Irish-America there would not have been an Irish peace process,” he says, citing the work of president Bill Clinton and senator George Mitchell.
“Irish-America was ahead on Ireland by seeing that there was a moment, an opportunity for peace at that time. We were proved right,” he says, recalling how many in Dublin as well as London warned against moving too quick on the negotiations and granting a visa to Adams.
Similarly, he says Irish-America currently “has a perfectly good understanding of what’s going on in Northern Ireland”, noting that demographic changes in the North and his belief that some unionists may want to be part of the EU through a united Ireland means reunification by consensus is possible.
Congressman Brendan Boyle also refutes the suggestion that Irish-America’s attitudes to Ireland are rooted in the past. “Irish-America is diverse. There are many Irish-Americans who are more conservative in their political leanings, but many who are more liberal.
“You see that with the Irish surnames of many in the Trump administration but also those in the Obama administration, for example. The one thing that does unite us here in Capitol Hill is a sincere and genuinely-held concern for Ireland,” says Boyle, whose father emigrated from Co Donegal.
Having the support of American political figures is a key strategic priority for those who favour a 32-county Ireland
He believes that a mature, nuanced discussion of Irish unity should be welcomed and is inevitable.
“I think it’s a very exciting time for all people involved – nationalist, unionist, those who do not identify as either – to engage with and imagine what the island will look like for the rest of the century, not in a rushed way, but in a well thought out and inconclusive manner.”
While the prospect of a Sinn Féin-led government in Dublin in the coming years now appears to be a distinct possibility, if in power the party would have to confront some uncomfortable realities about dealing with Washington.
Martin’s recent jibe at McDonald about her stance on the Palestinian issue – Sinn Féin has urged the Government to adopt the Occupied Territories’ Bill – hit on a real issue as Martin asked if Sinn Féin was as vocal with its friends on Capitol Hill on the issue as it is in the Dáil?
The pro-Israeli stance of most politicians on Capitol Hill across the political aisle – including figures like Boyle and Neal – is one of the few sources of disagreement between Dublin and Washington. American support for Ireland is not unconditional.
The effort invested by Sinn Féin and supporters of a united Ireland in Irish-America is an indication of just how powerful the American influence is perceived to be.
The embrace of Adams in the 1980s when he was still persona non grata in most parts of Ireland is one example of how Sinn Féin’s bet on Irish-America paid off. The Clinton administration’s decision to grant him a visa was a major step in his journey in from the cold.
As Ireland contemplates the possibility of a Border poll in the coming years, having the support of American political figures is a key strategic priority for those who favour a 32-county Ireland.
As one Sinn Féin source puts it: “Time and again, when America talks, Dublin listens. The role of Irish-America is invaluable.”