Category: Archive

How MacBride united Irish America

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The announcement was scarcely noted by the media. It was viewed as just another INC publicity stunt by Father McManus and the other usual suspects. It was seen as yet another damp squib doomed to failure because of the reluctance of the U.S. administration to interfere in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom, its most important NATO ally.
Republican representative Ben Gilman’s Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs could not get its proposed Northern Ireland legislation out of committee and onto the floor of either the House or Senate. While the Democrats controlled Congress, its leaders listened to the voice John Hume, the SDLP leader, who was vigorously opposed to the MacBride Principles campaign, which he regarded as just another barrier to badly needed investment in war-torn Northern Ireland.
The MacBride campaign, however, took its fight for fair employment policies in Northern Ireland out of the Washington Beltway and into the state houses and city halls across the Union. The most important of the city halls was in New York.
Observing the great success of the Sullivan Principles campaign to bring about regime change and employment practices in apartheid South Africa, suggestions were made that a similar campaign to end discrimination in the North.
New York City Comptroller, Harrison Goldin was attracted to the idea. It fell to the newly recruited Patrick Doherty in Goldin’s office to do the necessary research and produce a code of practice for U.S. corporations in the North.
Doherty’s research, coupled with the work already done by the INC, resulted in the publication of the MacBride Principles. They had four main sponsors, Dr. Sean MacBride, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international statesman, Father Brady, a distinguished educationalist and Belfast civil rights activist, Inez McCormack, a union official, and former Irish senator John Robb, a distinguished surgeon.
The fundamental difference between the two sets of principles was that Sullivan deliberately aimed to break South African law whilst MacBride only sought the actual full implementation of already existing law and procedures in Northern Ireland.
The MacBride campaign was fought on two fronts. The first was to persuade pension funds and other institutional investors with funds in U.S. corporations with subsidiaries in Northern Ireland to put down resolutions at corporation AGMs urging them to implement the MacBride Principles as part of their employment policies.
The second was to persuade state and city governments to support the MacBride Campaign and, depending upon the degree of support, to adopt legislation making it a condition for any company seeking state or city contracts to accept the principles and the add on of contract compliance.
When Doherty gave the British Information Service in New York a copy of the principles, the initial response was to congratulate Doherty on his research and to accept his conclusions.
When New York city Councilor Sal Albanese proposed the city adopt MacBride legislation, including contract compliance, the British policy performed a complete U-turn.
Sensing a threat to all British companies trading in North America and driven by officials in the department of economic development at Stormont, the British line was now that the principles were “illegal, unnecessary and counter-productive.”
The British government embarked on an unprecedented campaign, centered on the BIS in New York, to undermine the MacBride campaign and its supporters. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it denied that employment discrimination existed in the North.
Because Noraid was an early supporter of the campaign, the British government sought to portray the campaign’s supporters as either covert sympathizers of IRA terrorists, or well-meaning simpletons who were being led astray by those who should have known better.
The British did not understand Irish America. As Joe Jamison of the Irish American Labor Coalition pointed out, that, as a result of being appalled by the violence in the North, angered by the treatment of the hunger strikers and dismayed at the indifference of the federal government, the MacBride campaign gave Irish America a single issue around which to unite.
It was an opportunity to demonstrate in a peaceful and constitutional manner its continuing concern at the lack of any meaningful social and political movement in the North.
With the Ancient Order of Hibernians often in the lead, across the Union Irish Americans mobilized to influence local and national legislators. Within months of their publication, the AFL-CIO had adopted the principles. The British policy of opposing state and city legislation was self-defeating.
Every local committee hearing became a close examination of British policy in Northern Ireland, educating, alerting and uniting Irish-America in its determination to see change in the North. Northern Ireland was not being debated on the Hill, but it was in every state across the Union, Massachusetts being the first state to legislate on MacBride.
In 1986, supported by religious orders with only small shareholdings, Goldin, wielding millions of dollars of shares held by the New York City pension funds, put down MacBride resolutions for various company AGMs.
The companies sought the advice of the Securities and Exchange Commission asking it to agree that they did not have to put such resolutions on the agenda as they were being asked to implement policy contrary to Northern Ireland law.
The SEC gave such advice to American Brands. Its Northern Ireland subsidiary, Gallagher’s, had an overwhelmingly protestant workforce. In 1986, Goldin challenged American Brands in federal court. The judge held that the MacBride Principles were not contrary to Northern Ireland law. Although the British government was to battle for another decade against implementation of the MacBride Principles, it had lost the crucial fight in court.
When the Democrats lost control of Congress in the mid 1990s, Ben Gilman amendments to successive foreign aid bills Incorporated the MacBride Principles, now known as the principles of economic justice.
President Clinton vetoed the first bill because it contained unacceptable cuts in foreign aid. He later instructed his representative on the International Fund for Ireland to act as if the MacBride Principles were in operation.In 1998, when the Gilman amendments reappeared, they became part of federal law. Father McManus’s long years of campaigning on Capitol Hill had borne fruit.
The MacBride Principles are important in themselves, but the campaign for there implementation also marked the awakening of an Irish America, one able to overcome its own internal problems, jealousies and splits to unite on a single issue, this to influence the federal government to disregard the wishes of its closest ally.
For the first time, Irish America had forced the hand of the British government to alter legislation and policy in Ireland. Despite the charisma of Father McManus and the tenacity and organizing genius of Patrick Doherty, the campaign would not have succeeded without the initial support and encouragement of Harrison Goldin and his successor comptrollers of New York City.
Not one of them was Irish, but they all shared a common belief in the dignity and equality of individual human beings and sought to use their power and influence to achieve that end, not only endorsing the MacBride Principles, but campaigning actively for their success.

A Member of Parliament for nearly 40 years, Kevin McNamara was the longest serving Labor Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Born Liverpool Irish, McNamara was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers. He won a state scholarship to Hull University where he studied law. Elected to parliament in a by-election in January, 1966, McNamara became known as one of the most vigorous defenders of the Irish cause in the House of Commons. Upon his retirement, he completed his Ph.D. on the MacBride Principles at the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University where he is now a Fellow. Married with four sons, a daughter and eight grandchildren, McNamara’s grandparents hailed from Mayo, Louth, Meath and Down. His wife Nora’s family is from County Clare.

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