By Patrick Markey
Despite a tide of support in the United States for the Good Friday Peace Agreement and the peace process it has brokered, reports surfaced this week that a fission has opened in one of the oldest Republican groups in America, Clan Na Gael.
While other Irish American republican groups have stood firm in their support of the agreement, several factions from the Clan Na Gael in New Jersey have reportedly split away from the group in protest of what they see as the cementing of a British administration in Ireland.
Supporters of the Good Friday document downplayed the impact of the Clan split, while those holding firm in their opposition to what they see as a break from true republicanism, claim it illustrates the debate is far from over. Opponents of the agreement believe they now face the same censorship that Sinn Fein faced during the years leading up to the current peace process.
In a rare Clan Na Gael public statement, New Jersey Clan representative Dorothy Robinson appeared on WBAI’s "Radio Free Eireann" program at the weekend to denounce the Good Friday document and report a break in the organization.
Robinson said the breakaway group could no longer support Sinn Fein’s efforts.
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"We find the Black Friday Agreement unsupportable. We think it is possibly the worst agreement in the Irish history," she said in a telephone interview last week. Under the organization’s oath and constitution, the breakaway elements could not support anyone on the payroll of the British administration, she said.
"This legitimizes British rule in Ireland and you can’t support that and still be a Republican," she said.
The Clan’s history stretches back to the beginning of this century. Various factions from the Republican movement came together in New York to form Clan Na Gael. Under the leadership of John Devoy the Clan developed into an American organization supplying funds to Ireland during the beginning of the century. It has always remained a secretive organization.
Robinson said she had gone public to clarify that money going to the Clan elements that had broken away would not be going to Sinn Fein.
There would now be two national executives that would operate at cross purposes, she said. The breakaway elements would not be dictated to by Ireland and would operate as an American organization. Robinson said most of the New York Clan Na Gael is closely associated to Ireland, and its leadership is supportive of Sinn Fein’s strategy. Clan chapters in other parts of America are less closely associated with Ireland, she said.
The breakaway group is now recommending that its supporters donate to three groups: the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which is led in Ireland by Bernadette Sands-McKevitt and is linked to the Real IRA, the group that is responsible for the Aug. 15 Omagh bombing that killed 29; Republican Sinn Fein, and the National Graves Association, an organization that tends to republican graves in Ireland.
"We never had a hard time keeping busy during peace" with non-violent activities, Robinson said.
"We recognize that the people in the North have had enough. You can never expect anyone to carry a gun. The Irish people have a right to fight for their freedom and they have a right not to fight for it," she said.
Representatives from other elements of Clan Na Gael could not be reached for comment or confirmation of Robinson’s statements.
But Sinn Fein and other groups which support the Good Friday Agreement downplayed the importance of the breakaway, citing the broad support the agreement has enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic.
Downs: "Fringe element"
Friends of Sinn Fein representative in New York Larry Downs said that he believed 99 percent of Irish America was behind the peace agreement: "You’re always going to have a small fringe element that doesn’t feel that way, and that is what I think is happening here," he said.
Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein representative in Washington, said that she could not comment on the reported Clan split but said: "In general, the unmistakable impression I’ve gotten is that Irish America is absolutely behind Sinn Fein and understands the strategy."
Any claims of disagreement have to put into the wider context of overall support in Ireland and in the United States, O’Hare said. "People have a right to make their own analysis," she said. Where people have understood Sinn Fein’s strategy and have grasped politically the vision the party has, that has not happened. Those with differing opinions or who have criticized Sinn Fein’s efforts will not have effect the overall task and the determination to move on, she said.
That supportive voice was echoed in other Irish American groups.
Paul Doris, who is the national chairman of Irish Northern Aid Committee, said that Noraid organization is 100 percent behind Sinn Fein and their efforts in the Good Friday Agreement.
INAC had played a central role in fund-raising for republican prisoners and their dependents. Although the organization went through its own splits in the 1990s, Doris said the membership was supportive of the peace process and would continue to play an active role.
"We are in a different phase of the strategy now. For 30 years there was a war on the ground and we’re in a different phase now," he said.
Even with many prisoners released, Noraid would continue to highlight British injustice and civil rights issues in Northern Ireland through political lobbying, Doris said.
Debate and dissent
American supporters of the breakaway dissident group the 32 County Sovereignty Committee claim the Clan split illustrates disillusion with Stormont politics, and that debate over the Good Friday Agreement is continuing in Irish-American republican circles. Despite a hail of criticism, they believe they are now keeping alive the flame of republicanism in America.
Martin Galvin, one of the most vocal American critics of the Good Friday deal and a supporter of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, said people are now looking at the agreement to see if it will lead to a United Ireland. It is an ongoing debate, he said, and many Irish Americans had adopted a "wait and see" approach.
He believes those who see Stormont politics as simply legitimizing British rule in Ireland will begin to form what he sees as an "alternative republican strategy." Galvin said he and others who support that alternative strategy will work to refocus Irish American republicanism to continue to put political pressure on the British government.
"Everyone is praying that this works out. But we look at it very long range: people’s hopes will be dashed," said John McDonagh, a presenter on "Radio Free Eireann" and a critic of the agreement.
Many Irish Americans are on the sidelines after what McDonagh called a massive demobilization of Irish American republican activists, he said. He cites the recent visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to City Hall in New York and the lack of protests as an example of this lack of activism.
Despite criticism for their views, McDonagh and his co-presenter on Free Eireann, Sandy Boyer, see their role as filling the vacuum left by Irish American groups they say will have no mandate after the Good Friday Agreement. It is, they say, a long-term strategy.
"I’ll support anyone on trial for resisting British rule in Ireland," Boyer said. "It doesn’t mean I agree with them, but the British government has no right to try anyone resisting British rule."
Both men are also critical of what they claim is the hypocrisy of those who would censor opposition to the agreement.
"We got a lot of opposition when we supported Adams. When you’re involved in radical politics you’re going to get abuse," McDonagh said. Those who have criticized his opposition are fellow Republicans who should be open to debate, he said.
Others long involved in the American side of republicanism have been equally as critical. George Harrison, who was charged with arms smuggling but acquitted, is a staunch supporter of Republican Sinn Fein:
"There has been a stampede of support for the agreement, but there are those of us who did not join that stampede," he said.
"I am not pointing any fingers at anyone who expresses a different position than me. We want out of the Empire not into to it. Until the British leave, there will be no peace in Ireland."