Some of the Irish media got carried away last week with the success of the annual Friends of Sinn Féin dinners in New York and Toronto. The $500 a plate event in the Sheraton Hotel on 7th avenue got the most attention. There were glossy pics of tables laid out for guests and the menu attracted lots of interest. The Journal.ie reported how “As guests arrived for the cocktail hour in the Metropolitan West Ballroom, traditional Irish musicians played songs including The Town that I Loved so Well, Grace and Whiskey in the Jar… As we revealed last night, guests dined on a meal of Mediterranean salad to start, with grilled filet mignon for mains and pastries and cookies for dessert.”
It was all a little bizarre. Far from filet mignot we were reared. And to this mix was added the mock outrage of Joan Burton, the Labour Leader and Enda Kenny our Taoiseach, bemoaning the fact that Mary lou and I were going to miss the debate on the social welfare Bill in the Dáil. We were actually only missing a bit of it. Their concern was touching. But as I assured our New York and Toronto guests both Mary lou and I would be back in the Dáil holding this government to account for its bad policies.
That struck a chord with some of our exiles in the room who are among the half a million who now live on that side of the Atlantic because government policies forced them to search for jobs overseas.
Sinn Féin has long ago understood the importance of the Irish diaspora and its ability to use its political influence to assist the peace process. This was especially true in the United States. Our success there, as elsewhere, is very much down to the fact that we engage in an on-going dialogue with the diaspora. Sinn Féin representatives travel to Australia, and Britain, to the USA and Canada and other places where there are strong Irish communities. We update the diaspora on whatever is happening in the peace process and answer any questions they may have.
Other parties, including Fianna Fáil, and Fine Gael and the SDLP have tried to do this, as well as to fundraise. But none have been successful. Perhaps that’s part of the issue – begrudgery and jealousy in equal measure.
Sinn Féin is not the first Irish republican organisation to understand this. In his book ‘America and the 1916 Rising’ Dr. Ruan O’Donnell, senior lecturer in history at the University of Limerick, details the political and financial connections between the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the 1916 Rising – and Irish America.
Did you know that five of the seven signatories of the Proclamation had engaged in political activity in the USA in the decade before 1916? I didn’t. I knew of Tom Clarke and James Connolly but not the others. Ruan also makes the connection between those who fled Ireland during and after An Gorta Mór – the great hunger and the Fenians, Clann na Gael and the planning for revolution and rebellion in Ireland. Read his book and you are left in no doubt that the Rising was funded in large part by Irish America. By the children of the Great Hunger. For this reason and for the political support it offered the Proclamation talks of “and supported by her exiled children in America.”
America and the 1916 Rising is a commendable book which was published by Friends of Sinn Féin in the United States and given to every guest at the two dinners I spoke at. It is part of the celebrations leading to next year’s centenary for the Rising and the Proclamation.
For their part those I met wanted to know what the current crisis in the political processes is really all about and what are the prospects of finding solutions?
I reminded them of the prescient words of George Mitchell who chaired the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. On the day the Agreement was achieved George said to Martin McGuinness and me that that was the easy bit – the hard bit would be getting it implemented. And how right he was. I have lost count of the number of times negotiations have collapsed or the institutions have been suspended or a crisis was threatening to bring it all to an end.
The canker at the heart of these difficulties is the resistance to change and to equality from those in the British system who believed they could win the war, and from those in unreconstructed unionism who resent power sharing and equality.
This is the context of the current crisis. For our part Sinn Féin is involved in the negotiations to find solutions and to move the process forward.
The next six months will also be among the most challenging we have faced in many years and potentially the most rewarding. Sometime in the spring the Taoiseach will call a general election. In May there will be an Assembly election in the north.
Both of these elections present real opportunities for political growth and for advancing Sinn Féin’s objectives of unity and independence. That’s what our political opponents in Britain and Ireland are afraid of.
They fear a strong Irish republican party focussed on uniting Ireland, and committed to achieving real change, and advancing citizens’ rights instead of the two tier Ireland with its elites, privileges and inequalities.
We hope to do well in the General Election and in the Assembly election. We are seeking a mandate to be in Government. On both sides of the border. Our opponents fear this also. Especially our opponents in the media.
They know a strong Sinn Féin party, organised across Ireland and with mass support, and in government in Belfast and Dublin is the best vehicle to deliver Irish unity and the end of Partition and the Union. They also know that we represent a viable alternative to the right-wing conservatism and austerity of the establishment parties.
So, negative campaigning by our political opponents or elements of the media will not deter us. It only stiffens our resolve and that of those who think we are doing a good job.