By Patrick Markey
Sinn Fein has taken its largest bite yet out off the Big Apple.
With Northern Ireland’s political parties hunkered down in Belfast over the Mitchell review, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams slipped away from the negotiation table’s chilly cordiality last week to attend his party’s annual fund-raiser in New York.
The trip to Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue proved a lucrative one. Friends of Sinn Fein, the New York-based support group put on an impressive display of money-spinning skills, handing Sinn Fein its largest donation from a single event — half a million dollars.
Almost a thousand guests came to the New York Sheraton Hotel on Wednesday night, each pledging $500 a dinner plate to hear Adams present a rather gloomy take on the current political process.
The event raises Sinn Fein’s American tally to approximately $3.5 million since it began fund-raisers in 1995, according to Friends of Sinn Fein.
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Times have changed since Adams first came here in February 1994 when he was granted 48 hours to visit the United States. This time he was here for only 24 hours, a restraint imposed by political urgency in Belfast.
The Sinn Fein president had planned a series of lectures in the North East, but postponed all but the fund-raiser and a lunch-time speech after George Mitchell, who is reviewing the peace process, insisted all parties be available for talks.
If the euphoria of previous Adams visits had faded, so too had the earlier glitz when fund-raisers drew the likes of Bianca Jagger and real estate magnet Donald Trump. In the end, it was less a case of the gliterati than a power-show by the reliably faithful.
Antrim accents mingled with the nasal tones of Queens and the Bronx as Irish American CEOs and managers joined barmen, former Noraid activists, lawyers and the odd diplomat.
In a side-room room reminiscent of a gentleman’s club, the light sprinkling of femininity bobbed sparsely amid a sea of sober suits and stretched white shirts. Attendance seemed a matter of Irish genealogical pride as much as political allegiance.
"I’ve been to every one of these to hear firsthand what is going on," said New Yorker Sean Halligan, a mechanical contractor, who, like most, claimed Irish roots, his harking back to a Mayo-born grandfather.
"It’s for the good of my people. It’s our heritage," he said.
Despite such an impressive display of Irish American financial muscle, local politicians were surprisingly lacking. New York Gov. George E. Pataki managed to join the pre-dinner fray, if only briefly. His police security detail meshed with the Adams protection unit as the two politicians met.
Appealing directly to Irish America’s sense of nostalgia, Gov. Pataki told an eager crowd how he had just returned from a trip to Ireland to visit the ancestral home of his grandmother in County Louth.
"God bless you, Gerry. Thank you for all you’ve done," he said.
The party drifted into the main dining area, a cavernous hall decorated with Sinn Fein logos and a banner Tricolor draped across the stage. At every table lay a glossy new paperback copy of the Adams autobiography.
Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan introduced the man of the evening.
"Many of you have supported Sinn Fein and the friends of Sinn Fein and this peace initiative, you have supported it with your hearts, with your minds, with your voices and . . . most importantly with your check books," she said.
Drawing on a comparison between Adams and Samuel Beckett, the actress said the Sinn Fein president understood, as the playwright did, the indomitable will to win in the face of failure.
"Right now, at the moment in which we stand in the peace process, Gerry Adams must, of course, entertain thoughts such as what it would mean if it would fail," she said.
The prospect of failure was one, it seems, that Adams had already contemplated.
Yes, it was possible that the review would fail, he said, but his party would continue to struggle for a united and just Ireland. Just six years ago there had been war on the streets, now there was a peace. His message: Don’t lose hope and keep the faith.
"If you feel at all frustrated or annoyed or if you wonder if your investments, your investments in terms of money are worth it," Adams said, "just think of all the people who are alive today, in Tyrone, Antrim, Down and Derry, in Fermanagh, and in County Armagh."
As the Morning Star band played on, a gaggle of Adams’s fans lined two deep, shoulder-to-shoulder, clutching copies of his book waiting for a personal message. If any pessimism had leaked through from the Sinn Fein message, it was by now either well expected or well hidden.