By Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The walk from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s staff office in the Senate Russell Building to his private one-room office a few strides from the chamber of the United States Senate is not one to be undertaken lightly.
At one point, after negotiating a series of lengthy underground passages, the walker is ushered onto a small train-like vehicle, the kind of which is often seen at zoos and amusement parks ferrying energetic kids and exhausted parents from one attraction to the next.
The business of the U.S. Senate is not amusement, though it can be sometimes amusing. No one recognizes the distinction better than the senior senator from New York.
With only months to go before his retirement from political life and with "Derrymore" — the Catskills farm that is home and retreat for him and his wife, Elizabeth — on the selling block, Moynihan is yet to show signs that he is turning off a mind that has poured forth opinion and conclusion on just about every subject imaginable in a Washington political life that stretches back to the Kennedy administration.
But he does appear to be particularly relaxed and at ease with himself on a hot afternoon in early summer, one that has been interrupted by a visitor announced at his door even as the Senate deliberates on the course of the anti-drug war in far off Colombia. Urgent though it most certainly is, Colombia is pushed aside for a while and matters Irish, not for the first time in this room, are allowed to the fore.
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Moynihan, who’s 73, has been the object of criticism from some Irish Americans down the years due to his early and vociferous opposition to the IRA’s armed campaign during the 1970s and ’80s in particular. Surprising, then, that one of his earliest memories as a child is being signed up in the ranks of Irish-American IRA sympathizers in the Rockaways of the 1930s.
"Back on Rockaway Beach, I vaguely remember being sworn in as a member of the junior IRA in the back of a barroom," he said. "That, of course, was the world of subway workers and people like that, very close to the old country, first- and second-generation Irish Americans, a time when the St. Patrick’s Day parade was the big moment of the year."
Moynihan doesn’t so much run through memories as seemingly pluck them from the air.
"My grandfather came over here and made his way to Jamestown, N.Y., and he got a job digging ditches for pipelines," he said. "I remember going to visit his brother’s family; they were from Kerry. It was after the war, 1950, but the effects of the war were still being felt."
There follows a memory on his first contact with an Irish politician, one of an unusual kind. "Our big event in that regard was when Mayor Robert Briscoe arrived in the 1950s and came up to Albany," Moynihan said. "It was a big thing, the Jewish mayor of Dublin. I had read ‘Ulysses’ and knew there were such people in Dublin, but not many did."
If Moynihan’s early connections to Ireland and things Irish bordered mostly on the warm and fuzzy, he, like Irish America in general, was in for a rude shock as the 1960s came to a close. All was not well back in the old country, especially in the North.
"I had no feeling for this at first," Moynihan confessed. "But it got more agitated and you had those awful events in Derry and then you began to get a sense of what it was like.
"I have to say right up front that I have always assumed that there was an unresolved issue in the South which manifested itself in the North. And I think there was always a certain disposition in Dublin to say that we would rather have themselves killing each other up in Belfast rather than them killing us down here."
Moynihan’s views on the divisions in Ireland have always been clear and pointed, though the criticism of successive Irish governments has rarely surfaced. At the same time, not all his criticism is reserved for the indifference of Southern Irish politicians.
"I never felt that the English understood it, or that the Irish were willing to do anything about it," he said.
"Then, in 1977, when I came down here [to Washington as a first-term senator], there was suddenly a crisis with regard to American Irish support [for the IRA], so we drew up that St. Patrick’s Day statement, Ted [Kennedy], Hugh Carey and Tip [O’Neill] and I and it had its consequences, I think. John Hume will say it was the event that made it possible for the SDLP to prosper and prevail in the North."
That "Four Horsemen" statement, it could be argued, amounted to the opening words of the peace process in that it realigned Irish-American political power behind the idea of not only peace, but also peaceful change in Northern Ireland.
Moynihan, at this juncture, poses a question to himself about the Troubles.
"Is it over? I doubt it," he said.
Moynihan, along with Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Kennedy, was an early days congressional advocate of a direct U.S. role in facilitating peace in the North by means of a U.S. envoy. It is therefore not surprising that the senator who has taken swipes at President Clinton over more than one domestic issue approves of Clinton’s efforts in Ireland and lavishes praise on former Sen. George Mitchell, Clinton’s de facto envoy.
"Mitchell was wonderful and the Irish government chose to finally get involved," Moynihan said. "I always felt there was a certain distance they kept from the situation, though the present prime minister [Bertie Ahern] has been very good, very good indeed."
On the matter of a visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, Moynihan was not an early convert to the idea. Quite the contrary. But at the crucial moment, Moynihan set aside his objections and endorsed the idea in a letter to Clinton.
"I wouldn’t march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade when [Michael] Flannery was chosen [as grand marshal] on principle, but you can always make good with your friends, whereas peace has to be made with your enemies," Moynihan said.
The discussion of the IRA and Adams draws Moynihan off on another track. He frequently does this in the course of an interview. But he invariably pulls himself back to the point of discussion after setting off on tangents that, at first, seem unconnected and remote.
"For a period, I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Sub-Committee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs," he said. "I was traveling from Morocco through North Africa and on to South Asia when I arrived in Cairo and met Mubarak, who had just been in Libya. And he had been talking with Qaddafi and he said that Qaddafi was not making any trouble any more and he had cut of all aid to the Irish.
"And I said, ‘Oh my God, what does that mean?’ because only a few months earlier in Prague that wonderful fellow President Vaclav Havel announced to the world that his predecessors were broke and the only thing they could export from Czechoslovakia was Semtex and that they had sold two centuries’ supply of it to the Libyans."
Ireland is selling more than one product to the world these days and Moynihan can claim a share of the credit for this as a result of his efforts in the early 1990s, a time when the Celtic Tiger was still in gestation.
The so-called "Moynihan Amendment" to the federal budget in 1993 created a loophole that allowed U.S. corporations based in Ireland to divert profits into research and development that might otherwise have been soaked up by Washington-levied corporate tax rates — rates that were suddenly far higher than the 10 percent the Irish government wanted to charge.
"Yes, the Irish were worried," Moynihan said. "But in the end the advantage of being in the European Union and having a highly educated workforce prevailed. Allowing money to be plowed back into research and development was just enough."
A buzzing noise interrupts Moynihan. It alerts him to the fact that he is needed on the Senate floor. He doesn’t move too quickly, however. After almost a quarter of a century on Capitol Hill, he knows when it is time to move quickly. He knows the difference between a quorum call, a full vote or an adjournment.
"This will be a vote. I’m getting pretty good at these things," he said.
As the Senate awaits him, Moynihan is discoursing on Ulysses S. Grant and his relationship with the Irish. Grant, in Moynihan’s view, was a bit of a Nativist and Know Nothing, largely on the grounds that he proposed a constitutional amendment to ban public money for parochial schools. The fact that he played a large part in saving the Union is neither here nor there in this instance. With a last swipe at the 18th president, Moynihan rose and left the room to vote.
Upon returning, he goes back to the matter of Northern Ireland and its future. He agrees with the view of the U.S. as a facilitator, as neutral ground upon which disputing parties can talk in a way that might not be possible back in their place of origin. But mostly, he believes that it is now up to the parties in Northern Ireland to sort things out among themselves.
"It’s time to let it work itself out there," he said. "If we can be of use, yes, but I hope it can now be settled."