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Analysis: Irish America Divided

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The House International Relations Committee’s hearing on the alleged links involving the IRA, Sinn Fein and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is scheduled to go ahead today, Wednesday, has set a precedent. Though congressional committees have looked at different aspects of the Irish situation during the last 30 years, it has always been with a very pro-nationalist agenda: this will the first time in the history of congress that it has looked at any aspect of IRA activity with a critical eye.

There are those who are delighted that the precedent has been set, including the Ulster Unionist Party’s representative in the U.S., Anne Smith.

“Thank you for your exemplary service to our congress and our country,” she wrote to the HIRC chairman, Henry Hyde.

But there are many who believe that the hearing should never have been allowed to go forward, as they argue it will play into the hands of forces eager to discredit Sinn Fein and, by extension, undermine the Irish peace process. However, the line dividing them into pro and con does not always follow a predictable course, with at least one major Irish-American organization, the AOH coming out in favor of the hearings.

The 47-strong committee began its investigation into republican links with FARC, the drug-financed guerrilla organization currently at war with the U.S.-backed Colombia government, shortly after three Irishmen were arrested near Bogota on Aug. 11 2001. The three, James Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly, were linked to the IRA and Sinn Fein. They were traveling on false passports, and had just left the demilitarized zone then controlled by FARC where they claimed they had been studying the Colombian peace process. However, initial forensic tests carried out under the supervision of U.S. officials revealed the three had traces of explosives on their clothes. These results have since been disputed, as has nearly every aspect of the case as it developed over the intervening months into one of the most controversial issues confronting Sinn Fein, the IRA and Irish-American activists.

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It is also a controversy rich in irony in that the main opponents of the hearing in the Irish-American lobby have been those, such as the Rev. Sean McManus, leader of the Irish National Caucus, who have for almost 30 years made a career out of campaigning to have congress investigate the Northern Ireland situation. Indeed, one of the Caucus’s reasons for coming into being was to have “open hearings” in Congress on the Northern Irish problem.

Instead, now McManus has been campaigning hard to have this hearing stopped.

“This is a totally new thing,” McManus said “a new type of approach. It’s highly unusual for the committee to have investigations like this. It’s acting like a branch of intelligence.”

McManus and other Irish-American activists over the years campaigned to have congress look as things such as the human rights dimension to the Northern Ireland conflict. They had scant success. One two-day hearing was held beginning on Feb. 28, 1972, within a month of Bloody Sunday. Among those who testified at it were the New York human rights lawyer Paul O’Dwyer, Austin Currie, a member of the SDLP who had been active in the early days of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, and Fr. Denis Faul, the Dungannon priest who extensively documented alleged human rights violations. No republican spokesmen were allowed into the U.S. to testify at the hearing. However, it proved too contentious for the powers that were. Both the Irish and British governments saw the potential such hearings had to inflame pro-IRA sentiment in Irish America. The speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill was prevailed upon to ensure it would never happen again. It didn’t — at least during O’Neill’s long tenure as speaker.

It took 23 years before the Congress looked at the Northern Ireland problem again.

When it did, in February 1995, there was a peace process in motion, IRA and loyalist cease-fires in place, and a president who had put the Northern Ireland problem on his administration’s agenda. Republican Rep. Ben Gilman was chairman of the HIRC when it held hearings into proposed the MacBride Principles, a set of anti-discrimination guidelines aimed at would-be investors in Northern Ireland. Under Gilman, the committee held further hearings into Northern Ireland police reform and allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist terrorists. But three weeks ago, Gilman wrote a letter to the new chairman, Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, urging that the proposed Colombia hearings be suspended because he believed that it was “inopportune at this time to sidetrack” the peace process.

Gilman’s letter praised Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams for always dealing in a “fair and honorable manner with our committee.”

“Let us, therefore, allow him and the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to continue their efforts in the peace process at this critical time by suspending our Committee’s forthcoming inquiry into Sinn Fein’s alleged involvement in Colombia,” he wrote.

Hyde refused.

McManus was fulsome in his praise for Gilman’s stance. Gilman’s position was also supported by the Irish American Labor Coalition, which wrote to Hyde on April 16, claiming that if the hearings go ahead it will prove “problematic for two reliable partners of the U.S. in the peace process, Sinn Fein and the Irish government, while doing nothing to advance U.S. efforts to deter terrorism.” Citing a common theme of the anti-hearings lobby, the coalition’s letter, signed by Joe Jamison, Kate O’Connor, Dan Kane, and Walter Kane, warned that the hearing would “serve to strengthen our opponents — the retrograde elements on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and those in Britain — who do not want the Good Friday agreement, negotiated under U.S. supervision, to succeed.”

Hyde remained firm in his conviction that “American national interests are at stake in Colombia and this hearing goes to the very heart of that concern.” He also rejected claims that it would damage the peace process. In this he was supported by the AOH. In a statement on April 22,the national president of the oldest and largest Irish-America organization, Tom Gilligan, said that the hearing was “an important way to expose facts.”

“We do not claim to speak for all Irish-Americans as some do,” Gilligan went on, “but our organization and members take a back seat to no one in our patriotism. The U.S. is at war with drug traffickers and those who aid them, whether they are in Afghanistan or Colombia, whether they wear three-piece suits or guerrilla garb.”

Michael Cummings, the AOH national archivist and national press secretary, agreed.

“We have been the beneficiary of hearings in the past,” he said. “It is one way we can get at some issues. I just wish Adams would say something stronger than this is ‘mischievous.’ It leaves it open to interpretation.”

With Adams deciding not at attend the hearing, much will be left to interpretation, whatever facts emerge from the first U.S. investigation to focus on the IRA and its alleged activities in America’s backyard.

The 47-member House International Relations Committee represents a broad cross-section of congressional political opinion. Fourteen of the members represent northeast (mainly New York and New Jersey) constituencies, some such as Ben Gilman’s, with a strong Irish-American makeup. A substantial core of these have been identified over the years with Irish issues. As well as Gilman, they are Peter King, a New York Republican; Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat; Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat; Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican; Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Gary Ackerman, also a New York Democrat.

All have been sympathetic to Sinn Fein and the Irish nationalist agenda in general. King has been a long-time supporter also of the IRA. Smith was prominent in the hearings into Northern Ireland police reform. They can be expected to lend a sympathetic ear to any plausible explanation from Sinn Fein as to what the three republicans were doing in Bogota, should the party chose to send a representative to the hearing.

However, Rep. Hyde and Cass Ballenger a Republican from North Carolina, both conservatives, have been resolute in their determination to look at the allegations of IRA and FARC links. Ballenger was unequivocal when speaking before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on April 11. “The IRA has been in Colombia providing the FARC narco-terrorists with urban terrorist expertise and training,” he said.

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