By Jack Holland
I was fortunate in that when I first arrived to live in New York in 1977, the first person I interviewed was Paul O’Dwyer. He was running for reelection to the office of president of New York City Council, a post he had held since 1973. One hot August morning I went with him on a walk-about through the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Hasid women crossed the street rather than pass him. They meant no disrespect, he explained, it was just that they shunned non-Jewish males. Then he smiled and told me that nuns used to do the same when they saw him. Except that the nuns wanted to avoid him because they thought he was a dangerous communist.
Paul taught me one thing: the only real test of a politician’s sincerity is the unpopularity of the causes for which he fights. For most of his life he fought for unpopular causes. He defended Ireland’s neutrality during World War II. He campaigned on behalf of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1947 at a time when the future prime minister of Isr’l Menachem Begin was still on a British wanted list as a terrorist.
When he first ran for congress in the Washington Heights-Inwood section of Manhattan, he was hounded by Irish-American Catholics who enjoyed denouncing him as a “communist” because he had the support of the small U.S. Labor Party. (That was when the incident with the nuns occurred.) Between 1960 and 1963, he was in the U.S. South campaigning for civil rights for African Americans. In 1968, when he ran for nomination for the U.S. Senate, he advocated peace talks with the Vietnamese Liberation Front as a prelude to a U.S. withdrawal. Needless to say, he did not get the nomination but he did eventually get the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
He recalled an interview with a Los Angles Times reporter who asked him when about when he had first become involved in civil rights issues. O’Dwyer answered, “1920.”
“1920!” exclaimed the reporter. “But there were no civil rights issues here in 1920.”
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“But there were civil rights issues in Ireland in 1920,” O’Dwyer replied. When he was 13, he was a courier for the IRA in Mayo, avoiding patrols of Black and Tans. He later likened their shoot-ups and burnings of Irish villages and towns to Ku Klux Klan raids on blacks in the South. However, he was never one to boast about his “war” experience in Ireland and could never ascertain the importance of those messages he carried.
“Perhaps some people were only playing war games with me,” he said, smiling.
When I first met him in 1977, many still regarded him as a messenger for the IRA. His consistent advocacy of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland did not make him popular in some quarters. However, he still rankled the Irish-American community even when he took up Irish issues. Like the time he defended Pete “the Para” McMullen, the former IRA man who the British were trying to extradite from the U.S. McMullen, an ex-paratrooper, had joined the Provisional IRA in 1972 and bombed an army base in Britain. He fled to the U.S. and made many enemies here, especially in New York, when he turned on the IRA after handing himself into police custody. Few Irish-America activists were concerned when he was served with an extradition warrant, but O’Dwyer realized at once the significance of the move. If McMullen was returned to Britain, it would break over a century of U.S. legal tradition during which no Irish republican wanted for a political offense had been extradited. It would set a precedent for future cases.
O’Dwyer mounted a case arguing that McMullen’s offense fell under the political exception clause of the 1974 U.S.-UK extradition treaty. On May 11, 1979, the magistrate before whom the case was heard, Frederick Woelflen, handed down his decision, barring McMullen’s extradition because it met the prerequisites for the political offense clause.
It was the first extradition case involving Irish republicans in the U.S. for 75 years and it proved a severe embarrassment to the British government. A U.S. court had declared the republican campaign in Northern Ireland “political” at the very time that the British authorities were trying to impose criminal status on paramilitary prisoners in The Maze, denying them the privileges they had previously enjoyed as “political” prisoners. It was a victory for the republican movement that would not have taken place had it not been for O’Dwyer’s acumen. His law firm later successfully defended Dessie Mackin, a 25-year-old Belfast IRA man wanted in connection with the wounding of a soldier, who the British tried to have extradited in 1981. Of course, by the time the Joe Doherty case achieved notoriety in the late 1980s, U.S. politicians were tripping over themselves to have a photo opportunity alongside the wanted man. The climate had changed.
That is, once again Paul O’Dwyer was defending causes before they became popular – except that in the case of McMullen’s extradition, he had recognized a cause existed when others did not.
O’Dwyer was among the first to reach out to loyalists in the U.S., long before it became safe to do so. In 1979, he brought a group if Ulster loyalists into his office who were searching for a way out of the political morass that was Northern Ireland. They included UDA leaders John McMichael, Tommy Lyttle and Andy Tyrie. The Provisional IRA later assassinated McMichael, but his son John has pursued the search for a solution as an active member of the Ulster Democratic Party, playing a leading role in the peace process. O’Dwyer was never popular with the Irish-American political establishment. Nor could it ever really appropriate him. His radicalism was too convincing for comfort. And it was consistent. He was not simply opposed to Britain’s role in Ireland. He was opposed to imperialism and human rights abuses, whether they be perpetrated by the U.S. or the UK. It says something about the nature of mainstream American politics that no place could be found for him in it. His was the true dissenting voice, and it is a terrible loss that it has now been silenced.