“Nice to see you two gentlemen again.”
Mike was our friendly conductor on the express train on Friday morning as we travelled from New York to Boston. His family roots are in Dungannon and Pomeroy. He’s a Tyrone man and proud of it.
As he introduced himself he flicked back his coat to reveal a small radio with its aerial wrapped in green, white and orange.
Coming out of the New York Times on Thursday morning after a meeting with its editorial board I was stopped by 0ne of the maintenance staff. He is a native of Blackrock in County Louth.
They are just two of the millions who make up the Irish diaspora in the USA and many millions more scattered across the globe, who are proud of their Irish roots and heritage.
It’s the one solitary advantage of being recognised. I meet the Irish everywhere. On trains and planes, in streets and hotels, in New York and London, and Perth and Jerusalem, and Capetown. Every townland and parish the length and breadth of Ireland has a son or daughter in the diaspora.
Many of them were represented at the Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in New York on Thursday night in the Sheraton Hotel in New York. Over 800 Irish Americans demonstrating their solidarity with the struggle for freedom and unity in Ireland through their support for Sinn Féin.
The host dinner committee had done it again. Despite the economic difficulties it was a packed house.
Mary Lou McDonald was there for her first Friends of Sinn Féin dinner in the USA and her first visit to New York. She was given a warm and enthusiastic welcome and after the speechifying was over there was a queue of well wishers looking to say failte and to get their photo taken with her.
I was reminded of my first frenzied visit to New York which in part brought me to the same hotel. It was February 1994. Bill Flynn had organised a peace conference and the issue of a visa for me was causing headaches for the governments.
The British government was lobbying like mad to have the Clinton administration say no. As far as they were concerned the north was an internal matter for the ‘United Kingdom’ and everyone was told to butt out.
But Irish America was having none if it and launched its own intense lobbying campaign. As a result this blog got a 48 hour visa for New York. And one of the key events of that visit was a speaking engagement with hundreds of excited Irish Americans in the Sheraton Hotel. Some of those who organised that event 17 years ago were also involved in planning the FoSF dinner.
So, Thursday night’s dinner was an opportunity for a little nostalgia. But it was also a time for reflecting on the substantial progress that has been made since then – in no small way helped by Irish America.
It is also my custom at the New York dinner to provide a sort of report back on the work of the preceding year. And the last 12 months have been eventful!!
Last November when I returned to Ireland it was to go straight into the Donegal South West by-election. That saw Sinn Féin inflict a serious defeat on the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government and Pearse Doherty elected as a TD in the Dáil.
Did you know that in the year since then Sinn Féin has fought five additional major elections? The general election in the south, the Assembly and local government elections in the north, a Seanad election, and most recently the Presidential election.
Six elections in 12 months! As well as the Dublin West bi election.That’s an incredible number of major elections for any party to fight in such a short time. And remarkably each of those elections saw Sinn Féin significantly increase our representation - quite an achievement!
At a personal level it’s also been a year of change. 12 months ago I was still the MP and MLA for west Belfast. Today I’m the TD for Louth and the leader of the only real opposition party in the Dáil.
All of these changes were most obvious in the recent Presidential election. The first ever undertaken by a member of Sinn Féin. It was a short tight campaign and in a funny way New York is part of that story also. Martin was there when his candidancy was announced.
Nine months ago Sinn Féin won 9.9% of the vote. At the end of a hard six week campaign Martin McGuinness took 13.7% of the first preferences. In 31 out of the 38 constituencies we fought in February he increased our share of the vote. In 21 of those constituencies he increased our vote, and in four of the five constituencies we didn’t contest last February he took over 10% of the vote.
A very good result for the Irish republican project. And a solid electoral base for the local government elections in two years time.
Martin also succeeded in placing republican issues like Irish unity on the political agenda. He also introduced into the debate the fact that Irish citizens living in the north and passport holders within the diaspora, are denied the right to vote in Presidential elections.
As Michael D Higgins begins his Presidential term it is important that we raise again and again the right of Irish citizens living in the north of Ireland and others in the diaspora who hold Irish passports, to vote in future Presidential elections.
Next year the Irish government has said it will hold a constitutional convention. The Irish diaspora has to be part of that.
I said that to the large crowd who gathered in Boston for the Golden Bridges Irish Echo event. Our diaspora proved its value as an indispensible supporter of the peace process. It also has a vital contribution to make as we seek to reshape and reimagine Ireland in the 21st century.
And as the centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising and of the Proclamation approaches there is a role for Irish America in commemorating these events.
Ireland is an island in transition; in part because of the peace process but also because of the economic crisis. There is an opportunity to build a new Ireland – a new Republic, and the diaspora can play a positive and constructive role in that.