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
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
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.