By Jack Holland
There are almost enough Sinn Fein officials coming over to the U.S. this week to duplicate the Fenian commander Col. John O’Neill’s invasion of Canada. On May 31, 1866, he captured Fort Erie. He held on until June 2 before retreating back across the border to New York, raising the Fenian flag with "IRA" emblazoned on its banner on Canadian soil. However, the beaming faces of the Sinn Fein visitors as pictured in the full page advertisement for their trip that has appeared in the Irish American press do not suggest that they have any grandiose military schemes up their sleeves. They have left those days long behind them, I suppose.
The 13 Sinn Fein officials include such heavyweights as Gerry Adams, the party president; Martin McGuinness, the party’s chief negotiator; Gerry Kelly, the assembly representative from North Belfast, and veteran Joe Cahill. The trip is being organized by the Friends of Sinn Fein office in Washington, D.C., where Rita O’Hare is in charge. The team is crisscrossing the U.S. to "explain the current state of the peace process" and to "seek support" for Sinn Fein’s position that "the Good Friday Agreement must be implemented," according to the advertisement.
Sinn Fein’s concentration on U.S. opinion has been a feature of its politics since the early days when most, if not all, of the speakers now en route would have had great difficulty in getting visas. Since the peace process commenced, this concentration has increased dramatically. Indeed, following Adams’s first trip here in late January 1994, Sinn Fein and the republican movement as a whole have tended to see the U.S.’ role as crucial to the success or failure of the current efforts to bring about a settlement with which republicans will be able to live. They also have long known that this is where the money is. Going back to the days when Irish Northern Aid was collecting for the prisoners’ families, the republican movement has regarded the U.S. as a kind of cash cow, ready to be milked.
What is remarkable is not that they have been successful in this endeavor but that their fellow nationalists in the Social Democratic and Labor Party have left them virtually unchallenged on American soil. What is the SDLP doing while Sinn Fein’s super Active Service Unit is blitzing the U.S. from Montana to Washington?
Well, actually, Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the party and deputy first minister of the new assembly, will be attending a conference on the "equality agenda" being held at Columbia University in New York on March 12 and 13. Alex Atwood, one of the SDLP’s brighter young stars, will be there also. And, of course, John Hume, the party leader, will be in Washington for the usual St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans at the White House. Not exactly a concentrated attack, is it?
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The truth is that the vast majority of Irish Americans would not know who Alex Atwood is, and many would only have the vaguest idea as to the identity of Mallon. Hume’s name is well known. But when it comes to conjuring up an image of Irish nationalism, most Irish Americans would think of Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams before they would of the SDLP and its party luminaries, Hume apart. Yet, it is the SDLP that over the last 25 years has commanded the support of the vast majority of nationalists in Northern Ireland. Indeed, as of 1974, it was the most successful nationalist party that Northern Ireland ever produced, in terms of the number of votes it received, completely eclipsing the old Nationalist Party. But you would not know it, to look at its status in the U.S.
The problem, I think, goes back to the early 1970s, when Gerry Fitt was the SDLP leader. Fitt had come from the Northern Ireland labor movement and was in those days a republican socialist, despising the simplistic nationalism of the Nationalist Party, which he saw as sectarian in its conservative Catholic outlook. He was equally hostile to the Provisionals, whom he also viewed as basically sectarian. He tended to look on Irish Americans as the IRA’s uncritical cheer-leaders, people without any real knowledge of the complexities of the Northern Ireland situation. Fitt more or less abandoned propagandizing in the U.S. to Hume, then deputy leader. But the SDLP as a party never made any concerted effort to enlighten Irish Americans as to the realities of Northern Ireland.
Instead, Hume along with the Irish government diplomats, decided to work from the top down, enlisting Irish-American political leaders like Sens. Ted Kennedy and Patrick Moynihan to launch attacks on the Provisional IRA and issue calls for Irish Americans not to support the men of violence. This strategy ceded the vast majority of Irish-American activists to the Provisionals, who worked at ground level building up a support network that Sinn Fein was later able to utilize, though some of it has lately dropped off in protest at the party’s conversion to constitutional politics.
The SDLP complains that it does not have the money to launch one of its own ASUs on the U.S., and, anyway, Hume has access where it counts — the White House and Capitol Hill. But now so too has Sinn Fein, which, meanwhile, has far outstripping the SDLP in fund-raising activities. The party is building up campaign coffers to fight the upcoming local elections and the European parliamentary elections in June, when it will try to overtake the SDLP as the main Northern Irish nationalist party. That if it does so will be partly thanks to Hume’s championing of Adams during the peace process will be of little consolation to the SDLP.
The underlying problem, however, is as much to do with message as it is with any organizational difficulties the SDLP might have. When it comes to propaganda, the rule is the same as when trying to sell an idea to Hollywood: keep it simple. The Provisionals’ message was straightforward, an easy-to-absorb one-liner: Brits out. And the further away you were from the actualities of Northern Ireland the more reasonable it seemed. The SDLP’s message was far from simple. It talked about winning the consent of the North’s Protestant population. And that was a message that was hard to explain to many in this country who hardly knew the Protestants of Northern Ireland existed.