The US Presidential Elections: IRA's strident supporter is set for Congress

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THERE will be cheering on the Falls Road and throughout other areas of IRA support on 4 November next if, as widely predicted, the Republican party candidate, Peter King, succeeds in being elected as a member of the next Congress.

Mr King, 48, will then enjoy the double distinction of being the first US congressman to be barred from the airwaves in both Britain and Ireland, for his unabashed support for the Provisional IRA.

Until now a curiosity of American politics, Mr King, currently controller of the leafy Long Island suburb of Nassau County, could become a potent voice for militant Irish republicanism on the floor of Congress.

'I am not going to condemn the IRA,' he said in an interview yesterday. 'It is a legitimate force. To the extent that it's killing civilians, obviously I'd be opposed to that. For the most part the IRA's record has been superior to that of the British Army in the North of Ireland.

'On balance, considering the odds they face and the state terror tactics of the British Army and the RUC and the UDR, their record at least matches up to them.'

That Mr King may be elected as a Republican congressman, rather than a Democrat, makes his candidacy all the more fascinating.

Irish-Americans usually vote Democrat but, in the leafy suburbs of Nassau County, their sympathies have tended towards the Republican Party. Mr King, who is one of the most stridently pro- IRA politicians in the country, has tapped into the anti-British sentiment that many Irish-Americans nurture from generation to generation.

The Bush and Clinton camps have been paying particular attention to Irish sensibilities in the course of the Presidential election, with the Democrats hoping to woo back many of the so-called 'Reagan-Democrats' who deserted the party in the early 1980s.

Mr King's support for the IRA has won him the admiration of many expatriates from Northern Ireland, in particular, who have settled in the New York area. He plays a prominent role in galvanising support for the IRA, and by raising funds for Noraid, the organisation's US support group.

According to official figures, over the last five years Noraid sent dollars 626,628 ( pounds 366,500) to Ireland, while reporting far more - dollars 864,946 ( pounds 505,800) - in operating expenses, much of it used to subsidise weekly a pro-IRA paper, The Irish People.

Some of Mr King's antics have drawn the wrath of senior Republican figures in the past, but such is his support base, that he has so far been tolerated by the leadership.

When the Princess of Wales paid an official visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music some years ago, Mr King led the opposition, saying that 'the Royal Family is a symbol of British oppression in Northern Ireland'.

He also organised a support committee for the IRA fugitive Joseph Doherty, who was deported from the US earlier this year to complete a life sentence for the murder of a British Special Forces officer.