By Ray O’Hanlon
Capping a campaign that extends back to 1984, the MacBride Principles were enshrined in U.S. law last week when President Clinton added his signature to an omnibus spending bill passed by Congress.
The president’s action now means that any U.S. company doing business in Northern Ireland, and which hopes to obtain grants from the International Fund for Ireland, must commit itself to adhering to the nine fair-employment guidelines.
The successful passage of congressional MacBride legislation follows a last-minute failure two years ago when President Clinton vetoed a similar spending bill, although for reasons other than the MacBride component.
The passage of MacBride through the stormy seas of congressional spending debate was immediately welcomed by veteran players in the campaign.
"This is a magnificent achievement, a huge development. It has been a long battle," said Fr. Sean McManus, president of the Irish National Caucus and long the campaign’s most vocal booster.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who testified in favor of MacBride during the 1996 congressional debate, also welcomed passage into law of the principles.
New York City, with its $80 billion pension fund, has long been a crucial engine for the MacBride train, which, to date, has made successful stops in 16 states and more than 30 cities.
New York Rep. Ben Gilman, who chairs the House International Relations Committee and was instrumental in steering MacBride through Congress, said he was "very pleased" that MacBride was now the law of the land and would serve as a guide for the expenditure of U.S. economic aid in Northern Ireland.
"It is also an important message on equality which will help insure that no U.S. taxpayer monies can be used to re-enforce the ‘unsatisfactory status quo’ where job, workplace discrimination, and sectarian harassment poisoned life in the north of Ireland for far too long," Gilman said in a statement.
Passage was also cheered by Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who said it was fitting that Congress had acted on the 30th anniversary of the start of the civil rights campaign.
"This legislation provides a clear and unmistakable message from the U.S. that economic discrimination and inequality is not acceptable," Adams said.
The passage of MacBride, or the "principles of economic justice," as they are referred to in Congressional language, comes two and half years after the April, 1996 stumble.
The presidential veto at that time prompted strong criticism of President Clinton by some Irish-American MacBride supporters and legislators. This, in turn, sparked an angry reaction from other Irish Americans, who took the view that Clinton’s veto was not an attack on MacBride per se.
Later that year, the White House made public a letter from Clinton to Jim Lyons, U.S. observer for the IFI, in which the president stated that his veto had been entirely unrelated to MacBride. Clinton urged IFI support for projects in Northern Ireland that paid heed to the principles of economic justice, as well as the charter of the International Fund.
In the spring of 1992, as a presidential candidate, Clinton had outlined his support for the MacBride Principles, named after the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride, at an Irish-American presidential forum in Manhattan.
The congressional version of MacBride varies slightly from the original nine principles drawn up in 1984. A provision dealing with the obligation of employers to provide security to and from workplaces was effectively dropped, while the congressional version makes it clear that it does not call for disinvestment, quotas or reverse discrimination.
The latter understanding emerged as a concession two years ago aimed at Sen. Jesse Helms, whose support was seen as being vital if MacBride was to see the light of day in any congressional bill.