By Patrick Markey
Leaders of the dissident Republican group the 32 County Sovereignty Committee headed for Washington Tuesday after weathering mixed reviews of their rejection of the Belfast Agreement from New York’s Irish and Irish-American community.
Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, sister of dead IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, and former Sinn Fein councilor Rory Dougan left New York Tuesday and were due to meet with U.S. Rep. Peter King and other congressmen in the capital.
“I’ve known the Sands family for many years. We will give her an
opportunity to state her case,” King said of Sands-McKevitt’s visit to
Capitol Hill. But, King cautioned, he believes most of Congress is behind the Good Friday agreement and supports the leadership of Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.
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From the start, the committee’s American tour was marred by
A third member of the group, suspended Sinn Fein councilor for Omagh, Francis Mackey, was stopped at Dublin Airport on Tuesday last week and refused entry into the United States by American officials.
On Monday, the group had intended to hand over a copy of the 1919 Declaration of Independence to the United Nations. Unfortunately, it scheduled for the same day as the semi-annual review of the U.N. sanctions against Iraq, leaving the U.N. press corps with scarce time, according to a U.N. official, who asked to remain anonymous.
At discussions in New York and New Jersey, the committee members met with colorful and at times fractious questioning over their position and faced deep concern over a perceived splinter within the Republican movement.
While the committee members tried to drum up support, Friends of Sinn Fein in America took out full-page advertisements in both New York City’s Irish American newspapers and organized its own open forum of the Good Friday document.
The 32 County Sovereignty Committee was formed in December 1997 following resignations among Sinn Fein members over the direction of the peace process and the party’s acceptance of the Mitchell Principles of non-violence, which governed all parties’ participation in the peace process.
In March, Sinn Fein ruled that membership of the two groups was
incompatible, igniting criticism from committee members that the party was engaging in censorship of democratic debate.
The committee members believe the current peace document usurps the sovereignty of the Irish nation as laid out in the 1919 Declaration of Irish Independence. It was “anti Republican and unacceptable,” they said.
If the current agreement goes through, Sands-McKevitt said, it would legitimize a Unionist’s veto and allow the British government to claim a legitimate partition of the nation.
“From the sovereign position, we would say that the agreement and the two referenda and the way they have been stage-managed, they can’t be viewed as the sovereign wish of the people. We would reject them, if anything, as illegal,” she said.
“There is nothing wrong with negotiations. But let’s negotiate about the right thing and focus on addressing the cause of the problem, British rule.”
On Friday, speaking to an audience of just over one hundred jammed into the upstairs room of O’Lunney’s bar near Manhattan’s Times Square, Sands-McKevitt and Dougan were met with applause as they laid out their concerns over sovereignty.
With a green-blue tile mosaic portrait of her late brother hanging on the wall just behind her, Sands-McKevitt said the core issue should take precedence over loyalty to leadership.
But when the questioning turned to unity of the Republican movement., tensions flared at the back of the room.
“Republicans are divided again as they always have been,” cried out one observer.
Gabriel Megahey, a deportee living in the United States, stood to say that he, too, was unhappy with the agreement, but criticized Sands-McKevitt for breaking away.
“You should have stayed within the party,” he said. “I’ve seen too many splits already.”
Tensions stepped up a notch when Sinn Fein councilor for Monaghan, Owen Smyth, stepped forward to state he was in America on behalf of the Republican movement.
“I am disappointed, I have to say that,” Smyth said before reeling off his own personal history during the Troubles. Only a united Republican movement could carry the struggle forward, he said, praising the current Sinn Fein leadership.
It was certainly less contentious at Sinn Fein’s meeting on Saturday at another Manhattan bar, O’Neill’s, just blocks away from where the committee had spoken.
Party members gathered to hear Bairbre de Brun, Sinn Fein negotiator and director of its international affairs office, map out the party’s position on recent developments. Sinn Fein, she warned, was still in the consulting phase of looking at the document.
“It’s not where we intend to end up. It’s a rolling position, not a
settlement. But I do believe we are in a stronger position now than we have been in a long time,” de Brun said.
“The Union with Britain has been considerably weakened. There
is no doubt about that. You have now reduced the union to that one hinge of the majority in the north,” she said.
The state of prisoners living overseas, the Northern assembly and constitutional changes were all broached by the audience. When asked about the committee, de Brun said: “I have no difficulty in recognizing the right of people to voice their opinion and to discuss. But what I do have a difficultly with and what the party clearly had a difficultly with people who chose . . . not to be part of that consultation process.”
Earlier, on Thursday, Sands-McKevitt and Dougan met with a gathering of about 60 Irish and Irish Americans at Willie McBride’s in Hoboken, N.J. It was a warmer welcome than in Manhattan. Some had come out of respect for the Sands family. Others welcomed the opportunity to discuss another side of an document that is testing the Republican movement’s principles. What, asked one man, was their plan for getting Britain to withdraw:
“If this is a transitional process that is eventually going to lead to a
united Ireland, then all I want to know is the definitive time frame they are talking about,” Dougan said.
But it seems, some were looking for more concrete answers. For others it was simply a case of waiting.
“They didn’t really seem to offer any solution, given the reality of the situation. It’s good to voice opinions, but you’ve got to stick to reality, that’s all,” said one Dubliner, who would not give his name.
“It’s another viewpoint and everyone is entitled to be heard. There are major concerns and they have to be addressed,” said Malachy McAllister, another deportee.
“But we have to accept that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have brought us to the point where we are going to sit down and have talks with the Unionists. But people are still very unclear. We have to put our faith in them that they are going to come through.”