Irish-American clout that Britain ignores: The British media have misunderstood the Irish lobby in the US, says Leonard Doyle

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The Independent Online
THE INTERVENTION of a well-meaning Irish-American peace delegation in the politics of Northern Ireland has stirred up a lot of emotion in Britain, mostly based on a complete misunderstanding on the nature of the Irish lobby in the US. When a Radio 4 interviewer was speaking to the leader of the delegation, former Congressman Bruce Morrison, on Monday, his voice went up an octave as Mr Morrison insisted that their only motive in speaking to the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was in persuading the IRA to agree to a permanent cessation of violence.

There was a similar unbelieving tone from a Newsnight interviewer speaking to the Tipperary-born Irish-American journalist Niall O'Dowd, who insisted that the delegation was interested in talking to all sides in Northern Ireland and felt that its influence could be positive in bringing about peace. A similar tone was in evidence in a column by Simon Jenkins in the Times yesterday, where he wrote that Irish-Americans were always suckers to Republican blarney.

The point that most British commentators miss when discussing Irish-Americans is that far from being a stereotypical collection of drinkers in the bars of San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York ready to give money to the IRA or to assist in gun-running activities, the community is an increasingly powerful sector of American society. A recent survey found that one in five American chief executives is of Irish extraction and as a community it is now among the wealthiest and best educated in North America.

The vast majority of Irish-Americans are firmly opposed to violence but they retain an abiding interest in the problems of their ancestral homeland, much as Jewish Americans retain an interest in Israel and are influential in any peace moves in that country. What the Irish-American delegation hopes to do in Northern Ireland is to provide the provisional IRA with a vision of what can be attained by democratic means once they have finally abandoned the gun and the bomb.

The group, which has been involved in behind-the-scenes negotiation with Sinn Fein for about two years, believes that it is vital to help this organisation out of the isolation in which it finds itself after 25 years locked in struggle with the British Army and extremist loyalists. That was the thinking behind the group's successful effort to obtain a visa for Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, to travel to New York last February. The delegation also included the Unionists in its thinking and although they refused an invitation to go to New York with Mr Adams, the Irish- Americans organised a meeting between Mr James Molyneaux, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Vice-President Al Gore - an unprecedented level of access. The Unionist Party is refusing to meet the delegation when it is in Belfast tomorrow. But despite this setback, there is no doubting the respect with which the work of the delegation is held by the Clinton Administration, by the Dublin government and by senior figures in London.

It is not often recognised that the discussion of Ireland has been an almost permanent feature of domestic American politics and its foreign affairs since the potato famine of the 1840s. British-American diplomatic relations were frequently bedevilled by the effect Irish immigrants had on US politics. When combined with anti-British sentiment, this ensured that the Irish question was kept before the American people for longer than any other ethnic question.

The huge levels of immigration to the United States throughout the 19th century meant that although a minority in the country, Americans of Irish descent represented nearly 19 per cent of the American population by the 1920s. They were ostracised because of their religion, their brogue, their poverty, their ignorance and the comic association drawn upon in cartoons; but that discrimination only ensured that they became a potent force in local politics. Serious Irish nationalist activities began with the creation of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, later to become the Fenians. Though plagued with problems of leadership and effectively penetrated by British intelligence, the Fenians attempted two invasions of Canada in 1866 and 1870 and held dynamiting courses for revolutionaries in New York.

They were later replaced by an oath-bound secret society called Clan Na Gael. The Clan became the major source of revolutionary agitation in Ireland right up to the 1920s and it continues to exist today, including among its members the most die-hard supporters of the IRA among Irish-Americans.

While there are only a small number of people in the US ready to give money and other assistance to the IRA, police co-operation between London, Dublin and Washington has ensured that the flow of funds - and arms - has dried to a trickle. A contribution has also been made by the efforts of mainstream Irish-Americans led by politicians such as Senator Teddy Kennedy and the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who campaigned vigorously against giving support to the IRA. As a result, those Irish-Americans who figure so largely in British newspaper accounts of the Irish lobby have been marginalised, to be replaced by a more sophisticated group which recognises the need for political compromise between Irish Republicans and Unionists if there is ever to be peace in Ireland.

Calls for a united Ireland as the only solution no longer figure in the talk of Irish- Americans, although this has mostly gone unnoticed in either Britain or Ireland. Irish- American business has taken the pragmatic view that if the Northern Ireland issue were solved, it would be far easier to bring investment to all of Ireland. At the same time, many of these businessmen also believe that American corporate power could play a large role in bringing the two communities in Northern Ireland together, once the terrorist threat is gone.

What helped to bring the Irish-American lobby to the fore in the peace process was the dialogue which opened towards the end of last year between the SDLP leader, John Hume, and Mr Adams. Those discussions brought formerly antagonistic Irish-Americans together for the first time and enabled their leaders to make use of their widespread contacts throughout US society. The organisation Irish-Americans for Clinton/Gore which Mr Morrison and Mr O'Dowd founded two years ago has become the core of the new lobby. Mr Morrison is a friend of President Clinton and was a classmate of his at Yale Law School. With its close ties to the White House, its links to the Irish-American business community and the encouragement of the Dublin government, his group hopes to persuade the IRA that, once the stigma of violence has been removed, the Republican movement will be able to pursue its aims by democratic means.