Predictably, the Labour leader when faced with a difficult question always opts to create a distraction. In this case she raised my visit that day to New York for three days of meetings with Irish America, including the annual Friends of Sinn Féin fundraiser.
There was something pitiable and pathetic in Ms Burton’s remarks which smacked of begrudgery and envy.
There was a time when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael travelled the world in search of funding for their respective parties among the Irish diaspora. It was never about ending division or partition or Irish independence. Both parties wrapped the green flag around them as they posed as united Ireland parties, seeking reunification. The Labour Party tried to emulate this but with little success. The Dublin parties’ connection with the Irish diaspora was primarily about self-interest.
In the recent years of conflict a new dynamic was created as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour used their personal and political and governmental connections internationally to attack anything remotely republican or linked with Sinn Féin. It wasn’t about what was right or in the Irish national interest; it was all about political expediency. And if that meant bolstering British repression in the north then they were happy to co-operate.
Remember the briefings by Irish government officials in the USA and Britain against the Birmingham Six and other victims of British miscarriages of justice?
Remember the strident anti-MacBride Principles campaign run by successive Irish governments in the USA, often in collusion with the British Northern Ireland Office, and in support of Britain’s discriminatory employment practices in the north?
And throughout all of this Irish government Ministers, from all of the parties, railed against dialogue with Sinn Féin; attacked those in Irish America who criticised British policy; supported the visa ban against Sinn Féin leaders travelling to the United States; and implemented political censorship.
Sinn Féin comes to all of this differently. Irish republicans have always had close connections with the diaspora, especially Irish America, going back centuries. Fundraising is a part of that. We make no apologies for that. Irish America helped fund the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the 1916 Rising, and the Tan War against the British. In the conflict in the north their efforts supported political prisoners, their families and children. American civil rights leader Martin Luther King set fundraising in its proper context in 1956 when he said:
‘There is nothing in all of the world greater than freedom. It is worth paying for; it is worth losing a job; it is worth going to jail for’.
But for Sinn Féin the key strategic objective in our engagement with Irish America and the world-wide Irish diaspora was and is to mobilise its political strength and influence in support of the peace process and of Irish unity. This is a significant undertaking.
For decades British governments declared the conflict in the north as an internal matter and rejected any outside interest other than that which supported their repression. This was especially true of the USA. Famously senior Tory politician and government Minister Lord Hailsham was once asked by Irish Times journalist Conor O Clery about the attitude of Irish Americans. Hailsham’s face reddened and he slapped an open palm of his polished desk and declared; ‘Those bawstards, those Roman Catholic bawstards! How dare they interfere!’
The success of Sinn Féin’s approach is to be found in the positive engagement of President Bill Clinton, and of successive US Presidents and congressional leaders from both the Democratic and the Republican parties, with the Irish peace process.
It is to be found also in the contribution that international figures like George Mitchell, John de Chastelain, Richard Haass, Harri Holkeri, Martii Ahtisaari, and others, including Madiba (Nelson Mandela), Cyril Ramaphosa, Bill Flynn and many others have made.
It is evident too in the recent appointment by the Obama administration of former US Senator Gary Hart as its special envoy for the north. The work done by Richard Haass and Meghan O Sullivan, senior north American diplomats, on the past and legacy issues, contentious parades and flags is proof of the continuing commitment and interest of progressive opinion in the USA.
While their proposals, which reflected their engagement with civic society and all the political parties, were rejected by the unionists and not supported by the British government, nonetheless their work can be viewed as part of the successful engagements and investment of the diaspora.
The success of the diaspora can also be found in the jobs and community supports that the north and the border counties have benefitted from as a result of increased international funding following the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin works hard to maintain those connections. We understand their importance. Our party leadership regularly travel overseas to visit the diaspora. My visit to the USA last week, accompanied by Pearse Doherty TD and Rita O Hare, was an important part of that. Pearse went on to visit Toronto, another city with a very active diaspora.
When I was speaking in New York I was pleased to announce the appointment of Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh from Galway as Sinn Féin spokesperson for the diaspora. I thanked Sean Crowe TD for the sterling work that he has done, especially on behalf of the Irish undocumented in the USA. Trevor will build on Sean’s work.
I was also pleased to tell our audience that I had published a Bill in the Dáil to give votes in Presidential elections to Irish citizens in the north and to Irish passport holders globally. Sinn Féin will continue to press the Irish government to hold a referendum on this as soon as possible. Incidentally the constitutional convention has also recommended this move.
Sinn Féin is committed to working with the Irish diaspora in support of the peace process. It is a fact that the success of the peace process would not have been possible without the support of those I met last week and of Sinn Féin’s efforts.
Mary Lou rightly dismissed Joan Burton’s remarks in the Dáil as ‘comedic’. But they do reflect an increasing paranoia within Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour about the potential for growth for Sinn Féin in the next Dáil election.
As Sinn Féin rises in the polls so too does the level of abuse from our political enemies and in sections of the media. No opportunity is wasted to criticise and demonise Sinn Féin and to their shame they cynically manipulate desperately difficult and traumatic emotional issues, including personal family tragedies, to score political points. This has been part and parcel of the political landscape, north and south, for 40 years.
Despite this Sinn Féin will not be deflected. We will continue to challenge bad policy by the Irish and British governments. We will defend the peace process and the gains it has made. And we will engage constructively with the Irish diaspora worldwide.