Politics Archives – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Mon, 15 Jul 2019 20:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Irish Power, U.S. Politics U.S. Rep. Richie Neal Talks to Niall O’Dowd https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/ways-means-congressman-richie-neal/ https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/ways-means-congressman-richie-neal/#comments Wed, 01 May 2019 07:59:21 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=41861 Read more..]]> Richie Neal’s extraordinary journey from a working-class neighborhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C., and one of the most powerful jobs in American politics as the chairman of the Ways & Means Committee.


On November 7, 1960, Mary Garvey Neal, who had roots in Ventry, County Kerry, took her son to the Springfield, Massachusetts, town hall. It was very late and Richie Neal, then 10 years old, would never forget that evening.

He was there to witness one of the last campaign stops of Senator Jack Kennedy during the final frenetic days of the race against Richard Nixon for the presidency.

Inspired by the passion and fire he witnessed, Richie Neal decided there and then that he wanted to be a politician. It’s incredible to think, as he now sits atop the House Ways and Means Committee in one of the most powerful jobs in American politics, that the influence of Jack Kennedy still lives on.

Neal himself has a wonderful American story. He lost his mother to a heart attack in 1962 when he was just a young boy, and his father, a school custodian, died not long after. He and his sister were orphaned, raised by an aunt and grandmother. He remembers how they gave all the love they had, put him on the right track in life, and practiced good Catholic values.

Ulster University’s Magee Campus in Derry. Congressman Neal was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws for his outstanding contribution to peace and conflict resolution across the island of Ireland and for profiling Irish concerns throughout his congressional career. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

He was following his dream, too. He became councilman in Springfield, then mayor, and then at age 38, took the House seat of Ed Boland, his political mentor, in 1988.

He has held it easily since, often with no opposition, a reflection of his popularity back home.

His path to the leadership of Ways and Means was elongated, but thanks to a combination of retirement and defeat of those ahead of him, he arrived in January 2019 at the head of the most important committee in Congress.

Three future presidents – James Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley – served as Ways and Means chairmen, while the very first occupant was Thomas Fitzsimons, a native of Ireland who also represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. His portrait, overlooking the committee room, was proudly pointed out by Neal.

Our interview took place in that same august setting of the Ways and Means Committee meeting room, passing through extremely tight security on the way.

As always, Neal was modest and relaxed. He is a worker bee letting others take the limelight – with the exception of one issue: his beloved Ireland and his justifiable pride in the American dimension to the Irish peace process. As head of the Friends of Ireland committee, he is an indispensable friend of Ireland and Irish America.

Of course, there is the little matter of the president’s tax returns, which it falls to Neal to seek. There is no grandstanding or cable news appearances or screaming demands for them, just a heads-down, get-the-facts manner. That is Neal’s way, and it has landed him at the top in American politics, wielding enormous power.

We began by discussing his amazing journey.


When did politics first beckon?

When I saw Jack Kennedy the day before the election in 1960. He finished in three communities, Waterbury, Connecticut; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Boston, and if you’ve ever seen the film footage of him finishing in Springfield and Boston, as you might expect, he got a hero’s welcome. But seeing him that day – my mother was smart enough to keep us home from school – on the steps of Springfield City Hall, I remember that sense of inspiration and aspiration that I felt, the hope and ambition to do something.

Also, my family would have known Congressman Eddie Boland. My mother in particular always knew someone who was running for the register of deeds or the city council because that was the way up. And it was a great time of ascendancy in politics. There was a succession of mayors, six or seven in a row, whose parents or grandparents were Irish-born. The Democratic party in particular was the beneficiary [of the Irish]; they brought the right infusion of energy. And there was a great alliance between unions and the Democratic party.

From city councilman to one of the most powerful men in America: where did it all go right?

Part of it was ambition. I was thirty-eight when I first got elected to congress. I think I worked at least as hard, if not harder than everybody else. I had a good constituency that I inherited from Eddie Boland. He retired in 1988 and I took his seat.

I think I certainly was patient enough. I kind of made my way up, seat after seat, every two years. And I was lucky that I got a committee early on because the infrastructure in Massachusetts was pretty good. I came through a system where personal loyalty was a very important consideration. You had Joe Moakley [South Boston politician who was chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Rules], Tip O’Neill was just leaving, Eddie Boland had just left and I took his seat and got on a committee very early in my career.

Congressman Neal on a visit to Stormont with Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and former congressman Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) in 2008.

You came from a very humble background, a very tough one, because your mother and father both died when you were young. So how did you cope with that?

I was lucky to have an aunt and a grandmother. They were both great. And I also think it’s interesting that they were very Catholic. So we were never adopted. No social worker ever came to check on us. And the grandmother, she was one of fourteen, so I think her attitude was, “What’s another mouth at the table?” My aunt was devout. Remember those days they used to cover their heads when they went to Mass? We said the rosary at night.

There is much controversy right now as it relates to some of what happened in the Church, but for my aunt, grandmother, and my mother, the Church to them in those days was everything. It was an anchor.

Did you know you were poor?

Not really. It wasn’t exactly as though the neighborhood had a lot. My aunt had a pension, Mass Mutual. We had a little bit of life insurance that my father left, about $10,000. That was it. And we had the genius of Roosevelt’s social security survivor’s benefit. It was about $119 a month for each one of us. It wasn’t a lot, but we lived as a family.

How far back do your Irish roots go?

My paternal grandmother was born in County Down. On my mother’s side, her grandparents were born in West Kerry – Ventry. Irish was the first language for the West Kerry people. Springfield was the next parish over. You went where the others went before you, and they came here. In Holyoke, which is close by, they all came from Mayo. We were all from Kerry. And I think that they were very, very, proud of it. And it wasn’t as though they were going to Irish rallies or anything like that. But they knew of their traditions, they knew who they were and that they came from a pretty ancient culture that was comprised of great achievers. If you asked those people whereabouts they were from, they never said Ireland; they said they were from Kerry.

You first got involved in the North when you were a councilman.

The first time I got involved was in 1981 when Bobby Sands died [on hunger strike]. That’s when I took up a position because people in my community were pretty outraged. You know, those guys were dying on hunger strike, and Margaret Thatcher’s response was that they were criminals.

My first or second speech on the House floor after I got elected was on the use of rubber bullets [in Northern Ireland].

The first time I went to Ireland was around 1983; I went to visit relatives in County Down. In those days it was a militarized state. There were 30,000 British soldiers in an area the size of the state of Connecticut. You couldn’t go from street to street without being monitored. Helicopters circled no matter where you went. I was on a bus with Speaker of the House Tom Foley, and they boarded the bus. They had the big armaments and they had night vision – it was dark when we got on the bus – and they searched it.

When you look back at how the North and the Republic were colonized, and you look at the history, [you’ll see] that until the Rising, it was truly an argument about subjugation.

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams on a recent visit to Congressman Neal’s office.

You’ve been very involved in the Friends of Ireland Committee over the years.

Yes. I’m proud of the American role in the Good Friday Agreement. This is our agreement, too. We’re the backstop.

The British Embassy used to come up to the hill to meet with those of us in the [Congressional] Friends of Ireland. These were not pleasant meetings. But when the Good Friday Agreement came about, Tony Blair applauded us right here at the British Embassy. I remembered his quote all these years later. He said, “We’ve been great friends, America and the United Kingdom. We generally agreed on just about everything, but there was one issue we disagreed on: Ireland.” He said, “There was a time when I thought that the Friends of Ireland were a hindrance, but you helped us get through this.”

People forget that the Friends of Ireland was born of the purpose to try to compete with the money that was being used for gun-running. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who founded it in 1981, said that the idea was just to kind of offer a competing vision. So now you can go and say that the Friends of Ireland position is “No Border.” You can have the Speaker of the House say, “I agree!” I think people have forgotten that.

The Good Friday Agreement was everything, because it was Belfast / Dublin, and institutions would be created that would be All-Ireland institutions.

I saw [the importance of] that after we just left Derry, where that young woman [Lyra McKee] was murdered recently. The idea that an Irish prime minister would go to the funerals…

1916 Garden of Remembrance at Forest Park in the city of Springfield, M.A.

And leaders of the D.U.P.

And sit next to each other. You know, there was a time when the Irish prime ministers didn’t go. The British prime minister didn’t go. And I think that the Good Friday Agreement and the elimination of the border was so important.

Did you visit the border on your recent trip?

Yes. On the trip over, I mentioned to Nancy Pelosi my concern that they would try to talk us into avoiding the border. And she said, “We are going to the border.” And she went, and stood there. She walked across it. And nobody was confused when she was done talking about American foreign policy in relation to Brexit, saying that Congress would block any new trade deal with the U.K. if Britain’s exit from the E.U. threatened the peace in Northern Ireland.

We were advised that if the North goes [leaves the U.K.], then Scotland will go. And our response was, “It’s self-determination.” The Good Friday Agreement says that there could be a referendum question [on a united Ireland], and the greater number will prevail.

At the right moment. In the local elections last week, Unionist parties went from 246 to 202.

You see what’s happening. But this has not been going on for two years. This has been going on for thirty-five to forty years. It’s demographic. Of the six counties, there [are] four now that have a nationalist majority.

The people who have been against Brexit [have] successful agrarian interests in the North. And the reason they are against it is because they like selling their products in the Republic of Ireland. In the heyday of Ulster, or the North, part of the argument that the unionists used was that they had a higher standard of living in the North than the people in the Republic – not true any more. And you look at the resiliency of the Irish economy, from where they were [to] where they are now. How it bounced back. I think that without that border, people in the North look at it and they say, “You know what, if there is a true departure now from the European Union, it’s not bad for us to be Irish citizens.”

Do you think you’ll see a united Ireland?

Yes. Vigorously so. Oh, yes. And I think part of it is that you’re going to be reminded who has been against Brexit.

Are you optimistic about peace talks?

Yes. I think it is going to be born of necessity. If you are on the unionist side, it’s time to make the best deal you can. If you are on the nationalist side, you have to not do to the unionists what was done to you.

Do you still think they need an American envoy?

An honest broker is needed. I think that one of the problems we have had is that we thought there was going to be a successor to George Mitchell. It’s not going to happen. There’s only one Mitchell. Not only that: you look at how strong Blair was at the time. He really put something into it. And Bill Clinton really put something into it. Sometimes you need the strong men and the strong women to make the deal. The Irish government, during those years, was in favor of propping up SDLP. And the British government was in favor of propping up the D.U.P. And when the deal became inevitable, the toughest people made the deal [the nationalists and the loyalists].

Congressman Neal and former president Bill Clinton.

How did you get on with Brexiteer Rees-Mogg?

I am surprised to hear that sort of talk in this day and age.  The world has moved on, by decades. He clings to the notion of “empire.” There are those who make this argument for a return to a different time, I mean, if you remember when Roosevelt and Churchill were a great collaboration, World War II, and how America was destined to make the difference. Roosevelt pointed out that this was about advancing democracy, supporting our allies, but not a return to empire. He pointed out that we’re not going back to that.

There’s a group in London, England, who ran in a local election on a no-Brexit platform and won 704 seats. It’s the same in Britain, if the Labor party leader would only realize it, but he won’t take the chance.

When we met Jeremy Corbyn, he seemed to agree with everything we said about Ireland and the border. But whether or not he’s strong enough to do something about it, we’ll have to see.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meeting with Congressman Neal in Washington, D.C., in March 2019.

Let me ask you about the current day. What surprised you about the job, now that you have it?

Trying to manage a lot of the personalities is not easy. I always felt very comfortable on the policy stuff; I was smart enough to pay attention over the years. And I like reading long pieces about it, and hearing what everybody has to say, but boy, managing the strong personalities. I think that our job is to educate the public, not to entertain them. I think entertainment has seeped into politics; there’s this kind of, “I got to get out there,” before thinking through what you want to say, and I just resist that.

You’re in the ring with Trump, how are you doing?

The reality is, he won. And I think that we can have plenty of sharp disagreements, but I’m hopeful that even in this incendiary atmosphere, we can find some common ground on a handful of issues. We need to find an agreement on infrastructure, and we’ve got a big issue coming up with the multipayer pension plans in the Midwest.

There’s not too many other Democrats talking like that. It seems to be lines in the sand.

Yes. But I also have a different responsibility as chairman of this committee. We have to deal with taxes, trade, tariffs, Social Security, Medicare, management of the public debt, pensions, and welfare. I don’t have the luxury of not trying to fix these pension plans. They’ve got to get fixed.

You have great expertise in financial matters.

I paid a lot of attention to it over the years. I understand why the Fed should be independent, and not have the president’s acolytes being appointed.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Ambassador Dan Mulhall, and other Irish government representatives meet with Congressman Neal in his Washington, D.C., office in March. (Photo: Marty Katz.)

So what do you think of Trump as an individual?

I don’t know him well enough, but I think that in the age of theater, he’s an actor. I think that he probably enjoys this. I also think that this didn’t just happen – that we’ve been coursing through this for years. I think more entertainment has seeped into the political arena. It’s all instant opinion. There’s no deep breath, there’s no stepping back. There’s a lot of talking, and a lot less listening. And I think that the country has a lot of serious challenges in front of it. And I would like to think that some of this could calm for a period of time to get some of these big things done. Before you know it, by the time you get to the fall, we’re a year out from another presidential election. We’re exhausted from the last one, because it’s gone on.

Who do you like on the Democratic side?

I’m going to wait and see. I’ve got friends all over, with the job I’ve got. I think that we need to nominate the most electable Democrat. So that’s the bottom line.

The problem we have today is that we’ve now seen two elections where we’ve won the popular vote and lost the presidency. It is scary, and I think that part of this is that we need a mainstream Democrat.

So in terms of the tax returns, will you get them?

I don’t think that they’re going to be voluntarily turned over.

How far will all this go? Will it eventually go to the Supreme Court?

It could.

But even the Supreme Court surely can’t rule in his favor.

Well, I think that the law is very clear on this. It says, “Shall furnish, upon request,” and there is no sense, on my part, of malevolence here. There are eight successive presidents over forty years that have voluntarily released their forms. All the way back to Richard Nixon, they asked that their forms be reviewed. I don’t understand why, after the president said during the course of the campaign that he was going to voluntarily give up the forms, and then he said he was under audit. Now the IRS commissioner says, “It doesn’t make a difference; you can release the forms anyway.” But we’ve been very careful in preparing a court case. That’s why you don’t see me doing the bombast, and you don’t see me running to the cable shows. The House counsel has said to me, “You’ve got to be careful how you do this. You can’t do the shows, because you’re the petitioner in the court case, so you’re likely to be a witness.”

I was watching FOX News last night. The guy said you should be allowed to view them, but not take them away.

Well, that’s what actually happened with Richard Nixon and Joint Tax. You would have professionals review these. It’s not like you would have, you know, just the Ways and Means members, so I think that the answer, should we be successful, is the Joint Tax Committee, which is made up of attorneys, tax attorneys, accountants, and economists­. I think that that would be a good sounding board.

What do you think he is hiding?

I don’t know what he’s hiding. I think that the idea that he wouldn’t submit to the same sort of test that the others have had is the challenge. The challenge is that I don’t even start with a malicious intent. My attitude is: let’s just take a look at the forms; we’re interested in seeing how the IRS conducts an audit. That’s the legal basis of the request. I think that that’s fair.

Congressman Neal at the border in Northern Ireland in April 2019. (Photo: William Tranghese)

Do you think Trump will make it through his presidency without impeachment?

I think Speaker Pelosi would rather have an election than an impeachment. I think she’s right. You also have a presidential election now that’s, what, sixteen to seventeen months away? I was here during the Clinton impeachment and opinions shifted pretty vigorously on that. People forget, when Clinton left, two-thirds of the American people approved of the job that he had done. I was pretty impressed, because I was a big supporter. Be careful what you wish for. The other thing: be careful, only because you had in the Clinton case – you had the prosecutor, you had the press, you had the Republicans, and you had Clinton, and the people said,

“Of the four, we’ll take Clinton.” I mean, you’re known by your opponents sometimes. And the people that were involved in that at the time, they totally miscalculated, and I think [that’s why] Speaker Pelosi would rather have an election than an impeachment.

Hypothetical: President Warren calls on the phone and says, “I want you as ambassador to Ireland.”

As opposed to the Ways and Means chairmanship? I’ll stick with the Ways and Means chairmanship. Speaker Pelosi said to me when we were over there, “Did you ever think of running for one of those national offices?” Then she caught herself and she said, “Being chair of the Ways and Means Committee is better, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, it is.”  ♦ Niall O’Dowd

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James Connolly Visitor Centre Opens in Belfast https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/james-connolly-visitor-centre-opens-in-belfast/ https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/james-connolly-visitor-centre-opens-in-belfast/#respond Wed, 01 May 2019 07:49:06 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=41977 Read more..]]> At a ceremony on Friday, April 19, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins officially opened Áras Uí Chonghaile, the new James Connolly Visitor Centre, providing a new space for discovery, education, study, work, meeting, and socializing on the Falls Road in West Belfast, only yards from where Connolly lived. Connolly, a labor leader, was executed for his part in the 1916 Rising. A James Connolly pageant parade assembled in Conway Mill, processed down Falls Road and arrived at the Visitor Centre, where Higgins then delivered a speech.

Included in the parade were hundreds of Trade Unionists from across Ireland, Britain, and the United States, proudly carrying their union banners. It also featured a brass band, historical period speeches, and women and girls dressed in mill worker costumes.

General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady, Mayor of Belfast Deirdre Hargey, and Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of LIUNA, gave speeches. Frances Black and Terry O’Neill gave musical performances.  ♦

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Wild Irish Women: A Most Sorrowful Mystery https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/wild-irish-women-a-most-sorrowful-mystery/ https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/wild-irish-women-a-most-sorrowful-mystery/#respond Wed, 01 May 2019 07:38:59 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=42004 Read more..]]> Oh! star of Erin, queen of tears,
Black clouds have beset thy birth,
And your people die like morning stars,
That your light may grace the earth.

– “Stars of Freedom,” 1981
By IRA volunteer Bobby Sands, M.P.
H-Block, Long Kesh Prison Camp


Watching Bobby Sands die in 1981, much of the world realized, finally, that the young IRA soldier and hunger striker was a freedom fighter, and the view of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland forever changed. It was no longer seen as two Irish factions fighting over who had the better Jesus, but rather a struggle for human rights. Sands’ death was another chapter in Ireland’s long history of martyrs and “blood sacrifices.” Two weeks later another IRA hunger striker, one who was not allowed to die, was released from prison – Dolours Price.

Dolours Price grew up with a living blood sacrifice, Auntie Bridie, who in her IRA days dropped gelignite in an explosives dump and lost both her hands and eyes. To Dolours and her sister Marion, Auntie Bridie was a hero, they dutifully lit her many cigarettes and inserted them between her lips. Rebellion was the Price family business: the father was a longtime IRA chief, the mother in the Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the IRA, and at varying times each of the Prices, including old Granny, did a stretch in prison. Dolours recalled, “Our family motto wasn’t ‘For God and Ireland,’ Ireland came before God.”

Northern Ireland was created after Ireland’s War of Independence when, in 1921, the British Government passed an act that employed the Empire’s fallback “solution” – partition. Whether it’s  India or Ireland, partition always leads to tribalism and religious conflict. Britain kept the northern six counties with a Protestant majority, known as the “Loyalists”; the other, mostly Catholic, 26 counties became the Irish Republic. In Northern Ireland the Catholics, the “Republicans,” were a minority and subjected to discrimination in housing, jobs, and voting. It was Jim Crow, Irish style.

In the late 1960s, rebellion broke out all over the world as the younger generation found its voice, and the dissent found its way to Northern Ireland. There, the lines of sectarian hate had already been drawn, and the increasing tension was turning violent: The Troubles had arrived. In January 1969, Catholics (and some Protestants), embracing the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the People’s Democracy March, modeled after his Selma march.

Dolours and Marion, now college students, were among the activists marching from Belfast to Derry singing “We Shall Overcome” when they were ambushed by Loyalists and pelted with bricks, pipes, and boards with nails. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did nothing to stop the assault, instead aligning themselves with vigilante Protestants.

Dolours and her sister Marion on the peace march to Derry, where they were ambushed by Loyalists. (Photo: AP)

By August of the same year, Great Britain sent its army into Northern Ireland on a “limited operation.” It stayed for the next eight years, the longest continuous deployment in the history of the British military. In 1972, British paratroopers fired on a peace march, killing 13 unarmed civilians, a day forever known as Bloody Sunday. It was a turning point in the conflict. Both sides had become radicalized and now, it was war. The new generation of Republicans formed the Provisional IRA, committed to armed struggle; the Loyalist side spawned more virulent paramilitary groups – the Ulster Defense Association, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and the most violent, the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, it  did. The British introduced “internment,” a policy where anyone with a whiff of Republicanism was imprisoned indefinitely, without trial. The army colluded with the RUC and the Ulster paramilitaries, and together they recruited a network of informers, or “touts,” from the Catholic population. Throughout Irish history, informers were reviled, never to be forgiven, and if found out, executed.

Dolours no longer saw anti-violence protest as an option. She left her classes with a rifle hidden under her raincoat, traveled to Maoist headquarters in Milan to give a speech on “British  Repression,” and eventually approached the IRA demanding to be a member. She wanted to be a soldier on the front lines; the leadership met and, in 1971, Dolours became the first woman admitted to the IRA. She was 20 years old.

Now named the Crazy Prices (after a Belfast department tore), Dolours and Marion robbed banks dressed as nuns and hijacked cars and postal trucks. Both were glamourous and leggy in the era of miniskirts, and not above flirting with British soldiers – it helped them get past checkpoints to plant bombs. Dolours, in particular, had an ample supply of swagger and, like Che Guevara, became a symbol of radical chic. She volunteered for the Unknowns, a secret society within the secret society that was the IRA. The Unknowns were charged with transporting arms across the border, an  operation that expanded to transporting touts across the border to be executed. Those 17 touts later became known as the Disappeared.

In 1973 Dolours spearheaded a plan as audacious as it was doomed: the Unknowns would take the battle from Northern Ireland to England and plant car bombs outside London landmarks,  including the Old Bailey. Her team highjacked cars in Belfast and ferried them to London where they were wired with explosives. The bombs were set to go off at 2:50 and the police would get a one-hour notice before they detonated.

The night before the mission, an oddly relaxed Dolours decided to take in some London theater; it was an evening where her past, present, and future intersected. The play, Freedom of the City, was by Brian Friel, a Catholic from the North, and about Bloody Sunday (Friel was a participant). The director was Britain’s “angry young man” and Republican supporter Albert Finney; the star was a young actor, Stephen Rea, a Protestant from the North and Dolours’ fellow activist in the Belfast civil rights movement. Ten years later he became her husband.

The next day police were waiting for Dolours & Co. – they had been set up by an informer. But two bombs did go off, 200 people were injured, and the Belfast Bombers were arrested at the London Airport. The Crazy Prices were now the notorious celebrities, the Sisters of Terror; Vanessa Redgrave offered to pay their bail. During her trial, Dolours mugged, wisecracked and otherwise behaved badly; she and Marion received life sentences in Her Majesty’s prison at Brixton. Once outside the courtroom, Dolours announced she was going on a hunger strike unless she received political prisoner status and transferred to a Northern Ireland prison.

(December 7, 1971) Children jeer at British soldiers while a fire smolders in the street behind them. (Photo: Getty Images)

The parents visited Dolours and Marion, now the third generation of their family’s women to be imprisoned for the Republic. Their mother warned the girls, “no tears, not in front of these people.” The somewhat arrogant Albert Price reminded his daughters of his earlier IRA mission to London (with, of all people, Brendan Behan), “I blew them up before you did. The only thing was I didn’t get caught.”

Once inside, the Prices refused food for 33 days. Then authorities, worried about the backlash if the celebrity sisters died, ordered them to be force-fed, a procedure the international community now recognizes as torture. For 167 days, four guards bound their arms and legs to a chair, climbed on top of them, and stuck rubber tubing crammed with slop down their throat. They didn’t break, their resistance worked, and they were transferred to Armagh prison in Northern Ireland. But they had lost hair and teeth and developed anorexia and were now repulsed by food, “to have food was bad, to eat food was failure and defeat.”

The anorexia had put her life in peril, and despite continued opposition from Margaret Thatcher, Dolours, weighing 76 pounds, was released from prison in 1981. This was around the same time Bobby Sands and the other H-Block prisoners were on their hunger strike, a strike that would not have been possible without the Price sisters – because of their ordeal, force-feeding was no longer an option. The British government had stated, “henceforth any prisoner on hunger strike would be allowed to die.”

A screenshot from the Netflix documentary I, Dolours. (Courtesy: Netflix)

Out of prison, Dolours, suffering from severe PTSD, effectively ended her fight against the British Empire. She built a new life in Dublin and a new career, writing. She began dating her former friend from the civil rights movement, Stephen Rea. They married in 1983 had two sons and later, art imitating life, Rea was nominated for Academy Award playing a soulful IRA gunman in The Crying Game

Republican leader Gerry Adams left the fighting too. He moved on to politics, becoming the leader of Sinn Féin, and in 1983 began building a coalition, which included President Bill Clinton, that would lead to a treaty. In 1994, the IRA laid down their arms, a gesture that gave hope to both sides and inspired President Clinton’s speech in Derry. He quoted Seamus Heaney: “History says, don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.”

Young lovers: Dolours and the actor Stephen Rea, who became her husband. (Courtesy: The National Library of Ireland.)

In the 40 years from 1968 to 1998, over 3,600 people had been killed, and many others maimed, in the Troubles. On Good Friday 1998, both sides in the long battle reached a peace agreement – hope and history finally rhymed. The government would now consist of Catholics and Protestants, paramilitary groups put down their arms, and the police force integrated.

The treaty was a historic day for Ireland, but an unholy one for Dolours Price. The six counties of Ulster would remain part of the United Kingdom, prompting Dolours to announce that she had notendured torture and “the pangs of hunger strike just for a reformed English rule in Ireland.” The Good Friday Agreement led her to question her wartime activity: were her crimes in the name of Ireland now even justified? Was her cause still righteous? Was she a murderer?

Dolours was further incensed as Adams, with a straight face, denied he was ever in the IRA. She refused to accept the obvious – that his political expediency was the cost of peace. Adams had to talk out of both sides of his mouth since the Brits couldn’t be seen negotiating with a “terrorist” and, just as importantly, he was the only person who could persuade the IRA to put down their arms.

In 2001, the Belfast Project, an oral history of the Troubles sponsored by Boston College, began recording secret interviews with participants on both sides of the conflict. Former combatants conducted the interviews and participants were promised confidentiality: their stories would be sealed until after their death. As the Belfast Project proceeded, attention shifted to the Disappeared who were taken over the border to be executed and buried. Their families demanded the remains, and a commission was set up to locate the bodies. Of the 17 Disappeared, there was only one woman, Jean McConville, a single mother of 10 who was abducted in 1972 and never seen again. Dolours was the driver who drove her over the border to County Monaghan.

For years Dolours had been haunted by her IRA past. By 2003, she was divorced and struggling with depression, PTSD, alcoholism, and an addiction to prescription drugs. She was arrested for forging prescriptions and shoplifting vodka. Trying to exorcise her demons, she started talking. First to the media in Ireland and the U.S., then to the Belfast Project, and finally spilling everything in a 2010 documentary, I, Dolours.

In I, Dolours, she admitted to taking Jean McConville over the border, bringing her to an empty grave, and witnessing her execution. Her orders, she said, came directly from Gerry Adams. After the British government subpoenaed her interview from Boston College (so much for the college’s promise of confidentiality), Adams was arrested for Jean’s murder, but released after four days of questioning. During those four days, tremors ran through the region; it was only held together by a fragile peace.

In 2013, Dolours Price was found dead in her home from an overdose of sedatives and antidepressants – a desultory end to a woman of such passion. It wasn’t a suicide, according to the coroner, but rather “death by misadventure,” fitting for a woman who led a life of adventure and whose name means “sorrow.” At her funeral, Bernadette Devlin gave a eulogy that spoke to Dolours’ torment, “…forty years of cruel war, of sacrifice, of prison, of inhumanity… broke our hearts, and it broke our bodies and it makes every day hard.”

Dolours Price’s coffin is carried by her son Oscar and ex-husband, Stephen Rea. (Photo: Photocall)

Now, a popular tourist activity in Northern Ireland is gawking at trouble spots of the Troubles where the blood hasn’t dried and the bitterness on both sides is palpable. Other former war zones – Rwanda, Bosnia, South Africa – have worked at reconciliation, but not so with the notoriously grudge-holding Irish.

Then along came Brexit, a profoundly stupid and wrong-headed move driven by the dying gasp of British Imperialism. Oddly, the U.K., or the “Mainland,” as it’s known to Loyalists, managed to have forgotten one of its extant colonies, Ulster. Brexit has placed a new fear in Northern Ireland: fear of a hard border, a return to fighting, soldiers, and sandbags, or at the very least, a soft border subject to endless custom wars without the protection of the E.U.

But there’s another possibility. A new referendum could result in Northern Ireland joining with the Republic to create a United Ireland. This would mean that, after 800 years, there would be no British presence in Ireland, something else Bobby Sands wrote about in “Stars of Freedom,” shortly before he died.

But this Celtic star will be born,
And ne’er by mystic means,
But by a nation sired in freedom’s light,
And not in ancient dreams.  ♦


Rosemary Rogers co-authored, with Sean Kelly, the best-selling humor / reference book Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need (Random House, 1993), currently in its 18th international printing. The duo collaborated on four other books for Random House and calendars for Barnes & Noble. Rogers co-wrote two info / entertainment books for St. Martin’s Press. She is currently co-writing a book on empires for City Light Publishing.

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Window on the Past: Manifest Destiny https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/window-on-the-past-manifest-destiny/ https://irishamerica.com/2019/05/window-on-the-past-manifest-destiny/#respond Wed, 01 May 2019 07:32:44 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=42328 Read more..]]> Two words from one Irishman who trumpeted the world’s superpower.


“Manifest destiny…” These words, placed together, command one’s attention. They sound important, almost biblical. But they didn’t come from an Old Testament patriarch or New Testament prophet. Rather, they came from the pithy pen of a 19th-century Irishman named John O’Sullivan.

His ancestors were from County Kerry and included men who abandoned plans for the priesthood in order to become soldiers of fortune. His father was a naturalized American citizen who was serving as U.S. consul to the Barbary States when O’Sullivan was born on a British warship in the Bay of Gibraltar (between Spain and Morocco) in November 1813. According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (vol. 12), his family had been living at a nearby military post, but after the outbreak of plague, a British admiral invited them onto his ship.

O’Sullivan received his early education at a military school in Lorize, France, and then at the Westminster School in London, before matriculating at New York’s Columbia College. Upon graduation, he worked as a tutor for a few years. He also practiced law for some time, though it does not appear he was particularly interested or successful in the profession.

The most notable period of his life began in 1837, when he launched a magazine called the Democratic Review. This publication was bankrolled by funds his mother received from the U.S. government as restitution for having been wrongly arrested on suspicion of piracy more than a decade earlier, as relayed by Julius W. Pratt in his article “John L. O’Sullivan and Manifest Destiny,” which appeared in a 1933 edition of New York History.

Though O’Sullivan was foremost a political writer, he also clearly had literary interests. In his leading role at the Democratic Review, he published the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The two became good friends and O’Sullivan even served as godfather to Hawthorne’s eldest child.

O’Sullivan – who was described by a contemporary as “always full of grand and world-embracing schemes” – had a wild optimism that sometimes irritated people, including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau. However, his magazine became influential enough to attract contributions from some of the nation’s leading writers, whether or not they enjoyed his sanguine style.

O’Sullivan as depicted in a 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The Democratic Review was also the venue that first mentioned “manifest destiny,” which came in the middle of 1845, a year that saw the U.S. embroiled in disputes about whether or not it should annex Oregon and Texas.

This first mention of “manifest destiny” attracted scant notice, likely because it was obscured within a long essay, which typically is not the type of format that attracts a massive readership.

However, the second mention of the phrase appeared in a December 27, 1845 newspaper editorial, a format that often received massive readership. Sure enough, this time the phrase took flight and soon saw frequent use in arguments about the expansion of U.S. territory.

Though not everyone agreed with the concept of “manifest destiny,” O’Sullivan’s words gave voice to a widespread sentiment that the U.S. was a divinely guided nation, which had not only a right, but also a mission, to spread its greatness across the continent.

In O’Sullivan’s view, the U.S. had a “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

In 1846, he sold the Democratic Review for $5,000 (about $165,000 in today’s money). That same year, he married Susan Kearny Rodgers. The couple chose Cuba for their honeymoon, according to Robert Sampson’s book John L. O’Sullivan and His Times. Aside from being a romantic location, Cuba was a place where O’Sullivan was convinced the U.S. should manifest its destiny.

In April 1851, O’Sullivan was arrested in New York and charged with violating U.S. neutrality by preparing an unsanctioned attack on Cuba. He had hoped to liberate the territory from Spanish rule, so as to facilitate its annexation by the U.S. O’Sullivan’s strange case made it to trial, but the jury deadlocked and he was never convicted. Unfazed by this close call, but unwelcome back in Cuba, he became involved in political intrigues in Europe.

Despite his rather freewheeling background, O’Sullivan managed to secure a post as U.S. Minister to Portugal during the administration of President Franklin Pierce (1853-1857). But the end of the Pierce presidency spelled the end of O’Sullivan’s tenure. It also seems to have been the last time he had a consistent occupation.

In the 1860s, O’Sullivan’s political pamphlets – which supported the Confederacy and argued that the U.S. federal government was encroaching too much on states’ rights – made him unwelcome in much of America. Rather than relocate to the South, he self-exiled to Europe, and waited for sentiments to cool down in the U.S. It is unknown exactly how many years he spent abroad, but one of his surviving letters indicates that he was back in the U.S. by August 1879.

According to Pratt, the last three decades of O’Sullivan’s life are veiled in “almost complete obscurity.” What we do know is that, during this period, the U.S. continued to add to its grandeur, and O’Sullivan sunk into poverty.

On March 24, 1895 – almost exactly 50 years after having coined his famous phrase – he died at age 81 in a hotel at 15 East 11th Street in Manhattan. He was buried in the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. There was no record of a will. He had basically nothing to leave behind anyway, at least not in the material sense. He did, however, bequeath a phrase that never ceased to echo, or to stir emotions in opposite directions.

Indeed, many have found the “manifest destiny” words troubling, if not downright foul – a glorious-sounding phrase used to justify an already-powerful, nation-grabbing new land, at whatever cost to the native inhabitants. But regardless of one’s historical or political viewpoints, it’s hard to deny the impact of these words.

Many writers have penned thousands of articles and dozens of full-length books; their countless words, eloquent though they may be, almost invariably fade from memory in short order. O’Sullivan put together two words that resonated enough to galvanize a nation as grand as the modern world has seen.  ♦

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Brexit Uncertainty Makes Ireland More Attractive https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/brexit-uncertainty-makes-ireland-more-attractive/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/brexit-uncertainty-makes-ireland-more-attractive/#comments Sat, 22 Dec 2018 08:58:12 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=39465 Read more..]]> Bank of America Merrill Lynch has relocated its main EU banking arm from London to Dublin, months ahead of the earliest possible date of the UK’s exit from the EU. They are one of the first banks to take such steps to deal with the uncertainty looming over Brexit.

The bank merged the London location, which oversees €50 billion in assets, with its Irish subsidiary, bringing the total Ireland-based workforce to more than 800 people, split between two offices.

The new Irish hub will be led by the bank’s former Chief Financial Officer Bruce Thompson, and Cork native Rob Cahill will oversee its global technology and operations function.

“After many months of preparation and having just completed our cross border merger, we now stand ready to serve our clients seamlessly in their final preparations for Brexit and for the long term,” said Thompson.

Businesses are not the only ones making moving arrangements. As the Brexit negotiations linger on, some students in Northern Ireland have expressed their reservations about the deal and have made contingency plans regarding the border, with many applying for Irish passports.

The Irish backstop is a big point of concern. If there appears to be more of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, like the one seen above from the 1970s, the students say it will galvanize moderates to turn to Ireland and the EU. ♦ Maggie Holland

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Irish Favor Birthright Citizenship https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/irish-favor-birthright-citizenship/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/irish-favor-birthright-citizenship/#respond Sat, 22 Dec 2018 08:57:02 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=39462 Read more..]]> As other western countries are endorsing populist agendas on tightening immigration policy, Ireland is voicing its opposition to such restrictions, overwhelmingly in favor of reinstating birthright citizenship.

A Sunday Times poll found that 71 percent favored birthright citizenship, while 19 percent were opposed and 10 percent undecided. Three days later, a proposal on the matter passed a preliminary vote in the Irish Senate.

If passed, the law would grant citizenship to anyone born in Ireland who subsequently lives in the country for at least three years, regardless of his or her parents’ citizenship status. This would reverse a 2004 referendum in which 79 percent of voters supported the removal of birthright citizenship.

This drastic shift in public opinion on the matter has followed a few high-profile cases concerning various children’s citizenship statuses.

Although popular among the public, the bill is opposed by the Irish government because of fears that people living illegally in Britain will move to Northern Ireland to have a baby, securing Irish citizenship for their child and residency for themselves, or British citizens will use the same tactic to maintain free movement around the European Union once Brexit is finalized.

The senator who introduced the bill, Ivana Bacik, is confident it will pass in the Senate, but less certain about its prospects in the Dáil, the lower house and principal chamber of the Irish legislature. ♦ Maggie Holland

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Michael D. Higgins Re-Elected https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/michael-d-higgins-re-elected/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/12/michael-d-higgins-re-elected/#respond Sat, 22 Dec 2018 08:56:03 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=39451 Read more..]]> Irish President Michael D. Higgins has been re-elected for a second term after receiving 56 percent of the country’s vote on October 26. He was first elected in 2011 and will now serve another seven years. The inauguration took place Sunday, November 11, at Dublin Castle. This year, the inauguration coincided with the centenary of the end of World War I, and the President had therefore asked that the ceremony be held in the evening to facilitate those who wished to attend Armistice Day commemorations.

Higgins was the first incumbent in 50 years to face a challenge in his re-election. Businessman Peter Casey came in second with 23.1 percent of the vote. Casey got a boost in the polls after he made controversial comments about the Travellers community, comments that many initially thought would derail his campaign. Before the comments, he was polling at about two percent.

Higgins is a veteran politician, having served as Mayor of Galway, Teachta Dála, and senator. He has used his time in office to address issues concerning justice, social equality, social inclusion, sectarianism, racism and reconciliation.

Higgins said he accepted the outcome with “humility, determination, and excitement.” He added, “People are interested in ideas that are sincere and constructive. For words matter, words can hurt, words can heal, words can empower, words can divide.” ♦ Maggie Holland

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European of the Year https://irishamerica.com/2018/09/european-of-the-year/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/09/european-of-the-year/#respond Sat, 01 Sep 2018 06:49:01 +0000 https://irishamerica.com/?p=37567 Read more..]]> Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D. was named European of the Year by European Movement Ireland (EM Ireland) at an event sponsored by Uniphar in Dublin on June 11.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in presenting the award, reflected on the state of the nation when Enda Kenny became Taoiseach in 2011, when the G.D.P. had plummeted, unemployment had soared, and Ireland’s international reputation was in tatters.

“Under his patient and determined leadership, he steered the country on a path to regain what was lost.

“He had to fight for our national interests, but guiding his work at all times was his genuine appreciation of and commitment to Europe,” Varadkar said.

The former Taoiseach, who left office in 2017, has been an outspoken advocate for strengthening Ireland’s ties with the European Union, especially in light of the fact that its nearest neighbor, Britain, has broken away from the Union. Speaking at the event, Maurice Pratt, Chairman of EM Ireland and of Uniphar, said: “In many ways, Enda Kenny epitomizes EM Ireland’s mission statement to encourage active Irish engagement at all levels of our European relationship.”

In accepting the award, Kenny credited the E.U., which Ireland joined in 1973, with bringing Ireland into the modern day “The E.U. transformed our country, from being backward, introverted, and protectionist to outward-looking, export-oriented, with a globally confident people,” he said. ♦  Dave Lewis 

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Ireland Considers Legislation to Restrict International Travel by Convicted Pedophiles https://irishamerica.com/2018/05/ireland-considers-legislation-to-restrict-international-travel-by-convicted-pedophiles/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/05/ireland-considers-legislation-to-restrict-international-travel-by-convicted-pedophiles/#respond Wed, 09 May 2018 05:54:36 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=36372 Read more..]]> T.D.s and Senators have been urged to support a new bill – the Sex Offenses (Amendment) Bill 2018 – introduced in Dáil Éireann by Maureen O’Sullivan, T.D., which proposes to restrict the foreign travel of convicted pedophiles. If enacted, Ireland would be the first country in the E.U. to curtail overseas travel by convicted child sex abusers. Australia has already introduced such legislation.

Addressing a press conference in Dublin, Irish Columban missionary Fr. Shay Cullen, who has ministered in the Philippines since 1969, said the bill, if enacted, “will help to curtail child abuse sex tourism and protect children in countries like the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia where child protection laws are weak or not enforced.”

“The aim of this legislation is to protect the vulnerable in those parts of the world where sadly there is little or no child protection. In our globalized world where travel is readily available I believe we must do all we can in Ireland to ensure that our citizens who have been convicted of child sexual abuse, should they be deemed a risk, do not have a free pass to travel to other jurisdictions to abuse children,” O’Sullivan said.

Cullen pointed out that about 4.5 million children are trafficked globally each year in a business that is estimated at $32 billion. He said that in the Philippines there are few reliable statistics of the number of children abused, but UNICEF estimates it at 60,000 annually. ♦


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Twenty Years Later: Reflections on the Good Friday Agreement https://irishamerica.com/2018/05/twenty-years-later-reflections-on-the-good-friday-agreement/ https://irishamerica.com/2018/05/twenty-years-later-reflections-on-the-good-friday-agreement/#comments Wed, 09 May 2018 05:47:26 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=36293 Read more..]]> Signed on April 10, 1998, the landmark Good Friday Agreement helped to bring to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Twenty years on, Deaglán de Bréadún looks at how the agreement came about, the American role, and the current state of play.

In the early 1990s, the blood-soaked contest between the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and the British security forces in Northern Ireland had reached a stalemate and the movers and shakers in both camps were looking for a more constructive way forward. But if the militants of the I.R.A. were to be persuaded to adopt non-violent means, they had to be shown that people like Gerry Adams, leader of the movement’s political wing, Sinn Féin, could get a platform that would eventually yield results.

A key moment in that regard came about when President Bill Clinton was persuaded by leading Irish Americans such as former Congressman Bruce Morrison, businessman Bill Flynn, journalist and publisher Niall O’Dowd, philanthropist Charles “Chuck” Feeney, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, and her brother, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, to grant a visa to Adams, who had been banned from entering the U.S. because he was seen as an apologist for terrorism.

It was January 31, 1994, when the Sinn Féin leader arrived in New York on a 48-hour visa. Irish America turned out in large numbers for the visit, which became a major international news story.

Exactly seven months later, on August 31, the I.R.A. announced it was going on ceasefire from midnight. The ceasefire collapsed on February 9, 1996, when a truckload of explosives was detonated in the London docklands, killing two people and injuring 40. The guns fell silent again on July 20, 1997, but it was clear that a serious settlement would have to be reached to ensure that it would last this time around.

Efforts to broker a peace agreement continued and finally came to a head in the week before Easter Sunday 1998. Most of the main parties in Northern Ireland were at Castle Buildings in Stormont, on the eastern fringe of Belfast, with former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as the principal chairman of the talks.

At Sinn Féin headquarters in Belfast, December 17, 1997, (left to right) chairman of Mutual of America Bill Flynn, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, Chuck Feeney, Congressman Bruce Morrison, and Irish American Labor Coalition leader Bill Lenahan. (Photo: Crispin Rodwell)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Belfast at short notice to help resolve the differences and, having declared it was not a day for talking in soundbites, went on to do exactly that when he said, “I feel the hand of history on our shoulder.” His Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern suffered a personal tragedy when his mother, Julia, died suddenly of a heart attack in Dublin, but the Taoiseach still managed to combine the funeral ceremonies with attendance at Castle Buildings, flying up and down as the situation required.

The government in Dublin was prepared to modify the territorial claim to Northern Ireland in the Irish Constitution but was seeking a wide-range of North-South institutions to minimize the political damage among its own supporters. When Ahern agreed to cut back the number of cross-border bodies and areas of cooperation, the mood on the unionist side improved: the list went down to 12 from more than 60. There was agreement on an elected Northern Ireland Assembly with a cabinet-style Executive where powers would be shared on a mandatory coalition basis between representatives of the unionist and nationalist communities. In a meeting at 3 a.m. on Friday April 10, Gerry Adams and his republican soulmate, the late Martin McGuinness, were promised by Blair and Ahern that all politically-motivated prisoners would be released within two years.

There was a last-minute crisis in the Ulster Unionist Party (U.U.P.) delegation over the decommissioning of I.R.A. weapons because elements in the U.U.P. felt the conditions were not sufficiently strict. However, a letter of reassurance from Blair allowed U.U.P. leader David Trimble to accept the final deal. Blair and Ahern were assisted by a huge effort from President Clinton who was in contact by phone with leading participants throughout the last night of the protracted negotiations.

The first power-sharing Executive took office the following year, led by the U.U.P. and the moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (S.D.L.P.) but also including two ministers each from Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.), even though the latter had walked out of the Stormont talks.

The Executive was led by David Trimble as first minister and the S.D.L.P.’s Seamus Mallon as deputy first minister (his party leader John Hume had declined the position). There have been many ups and downs since, but the most extraordinary development so far took place on May 8, 2007, when the Rev. Ian Paisley of the D.U.P. and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness took office as first and deputy first ministers respectively – their parties having by now become the largest in the Assembly. Despite the vast difference in their backgrounds – Paisley was a long-time spokesman for hard-line unionism and McGuinness had been named as I.R.A. chief of staff – they got on famously well on a personal level and their good-humored partnership earned them the nickname of “The Chuckle Brothers.”

Gerry Adams and Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith pictured at an Irish America event honoring Ambassador Kennedy Smith as Irish American of the Year 1995 at Tavern on the Green, New York City. (Photo: James Higgins)

Sadly, both men have since died. The Executive they established lasted a remarkable 10 years until January 2017, when a major dispute erupted over state payments into a highly expensive renewable energy scheme which was meant to be under the supervision of a government department headed by the current D.U.P. leader Arlene Foster. McGuinness, who was in the final stages of a fatal illness, called on her to step aside temporarily as first minister while an independent inquiry took place into the operation of the so-called “cash-for-ash” scheme. When she refused, Sinn Féin walked out of the Executive and the Assembly, both of which have been in suspension ever since.

Despite protracted talks between the D.U.P. and Sinn Féin, no agreement has been reached at time of writing on a resumption of the political institutions. The key point of difference is on Sinn Féin’s demand for legislation to enhance the status of the Irish language, which has become a major symbol of political respect for nationalists and republicans. It is understood that senior D.U.P. figures are well-disposed to an agreement but have so far failed to overcome the opposition from hardliners in the party.

Meanwhile, demographic changes indicate that the Catholic, mainly nationalist, element of the population will become the majority community in Northern Ireland in less than 20 years. The last census in 2011 revealed that, in the under-five age-group, 48 percent were Catholic and 37 percent Protestant. Based on these figures, Irish Times economic commentator David McWilliams has calculated that Catholics will achieve an absolute majority in the North by around 2036. More recently, leading academic Dr. Paul Nolan told the BBC that Catholics could outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland within three years, by 2021, although he pointed out that being a Catholic does not necessarily mean you want to see a united Ireland.

At a political level, in the last elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the total of 28 seats won by the D.U.P. was only one ahead of Sinn Féin at 27 seats. The difference in the number of votes was also very slight: the D.U.P. got 225,413 compared to 224,245 for Sinn Féin – a gap of only just over a thousand. The tectonic plates are shifting.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a united Ireland will come about if separate majorities in the two parts of the island vote for it. Brexit, the looming departure of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union, has revived interest in the topic of Irish unity. Opinion polls indicate for the most part that, while there is a very clear majority in the North at present who wish to remain in the U.K., this figure would be reduced if there was a “hard Brexit” that had seriously negative economic consequences. Meanwhile, in the South, polls generally show a substantial majority for unity, but this would go down significantly if it meant paying extra taxes.

Following the Brexit vote, there has been a sharp rise in applications for Irish passports from citizens of Ireland living in the North and Britain. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Dublin said one in every five passport applicants came into this category last year. A total of 779,000 Irish passports were issued in 2017, the highest ever in a single year. There were 6,300 applications to the department’s mission in New York.

Despite the impasse at a political level, work continues in the North-South bodies and the areas for cross-border cooperation that are part of the Good Friday legacy. Tourism Ireland, for example, was set up following the agreement with a remit to promote the entire island, North and South, as a destination for holidaymakers and businesspeople. With a staff of about 150, it has created marketing programs on a wide international basis as well as at home. Remarkably, considering its recent history, Belfast has become a very popular tourist destination with such attractions as the Titanic center, which recalls the ocean-liner’s ill-fated voyage of 1912, and tours from the city to locations used in the filming of the hugely-popular Game of Thrones television series.

Areas of cooperation also include agriculture, education, environment, health and transport. There are north-south bodies dealing with waterways, food safety, trade and business, special European Union programs, aquaculture and marine issues, the Irish language, and the dialect of Ulster Scots.

While efforts to restore the Executive and the Assembly are continuing, there appears to be no threat, at least in the short-term, to the peace that emerged from the Good Friday pact. On a recent visit to Belfast for the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Bill Clinton described it as “a work of surpassing genius.” Tony Blair was at the same event and, recalling the daily reports of violence in the past, told the audience at Queen’s University, “Where we are may not be where we want to be, but it’s a world better than where we were.” ♦


Deaglán de Bréadún is a columnist with the Irish News and former Northern editor of the Irish Times. His books include The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (Collins Press, 2008) and Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin (Merrion Press, 2015).

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