Meeting up with friends on Capitol Hill
Regular readers of this column will know that I find the engagement with the Irish diaspora in the USA really uplifting and positive. It is also exhausting. A perpetual round of meetings, travel and living out of a suitcase. And the jet lag! But it is the human element of it all that makes it worthwhile. The interaction with our friends, the craic, the real interest in what is happening back in Ireland, the hospitality and willingness to help are what makes these visits worthwhile. Last week’s Saint Patrick’s Day’s trip was very worthwhile indeed.
It was Mary Lou’s first visit as Uachtarán Shinn Féin. She was accompanied by Leas Uachtarán Michelle O Neill. I was there, as part of the transition of our party, to appeal to all those we met to give them the same support that they gave me for the last twenty-five years that I travelled there. It was entirely appropriate that our first event was in the home of a Tyrone couple, Rosemary and Fay Devlin. They had gathered a great bunch of stalwarts to welcome us and it was in the Devlin home that Mary Lou made her first speech in North America as Sinn Féin President.
The next morning it was snowing. I sat in their kitchen and had a very nice chat with Rosemary and Fay. Rosemary’s mother Kathleen died a month ago back in Ireland and she and Fay were just back after the Month’s Mind Mass. Kathleen was a great Irish woman, a quiet patriot and a great supporter of Irish freedom and unity. The vast majority of our friends are like the Delvin’s. The Downes’ are the same. The Macken’s. The Donaghy’s. The Bryce’s. The Smith’s. Durkan’s. The O Sullivan’s. Kehoe’s. Murrihey’s. Curtin’s. Glennon’s. And that’s only in New York. Across the USA there are hundreds and thousands more. The Guilfoyle’s. The Doris clann. The Scally’s. Doyle’s. Many many more. Making a living. Rearing their families and keeping faith with Ireland. And the Irish cause. And with their families back home.
It is little wonder the 1916 Proclamation singled out ‘our exiled children in America’. They funded the Rising. They wanted a revolution in their homeland and worked to make it happen. The Fenian tradition started here. The United Irish Men (and Women) drew on the revolutionary principles of the American tradition. James Connolly worked in the USA. So did Tom Clarke. All the 1916 leaders travelled to the USA to engage with the base here. Liam Mellows in his time did great work preparing the way for Eamonn De Valera. Nowadays the difference is that there is a peaceful way to win freedom and Irish unity. Irish America supports that.
And the Irish republican base is well informed. Right across the USA. It knows about Brexit. About the DUP pact with the English Tories. About the recent talks. About Martin McGuinness’ first anniversary coming up. About the recent elections. About what the Irish government should be doing. About what it actually does. Or doesn’t do.
I thought of this as we arrived in Washington. The access that the Irish have there is extraordinary. And that includes Sinn Féin, not least because of the pioneering work of Rita O Hare, our North American Representative. Rita would be the first to acknowledge that this is only possible because of the support from so many individuals, organisations and activists. It is most obvious on Capitol Hill. It was there Mary Lou addressed Congress members led by Richie Neal and Peter King. The night before they had hosted a 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement discussion. I joined other representatives of Irish parties including the Taoiseach to give our views on this. I focused my remarks on the future. George Mitchell made a wonderful speech. The event, in the Library of Congress, was a great success.
Mary Lou’s briefing session reflected that. From the consequences of Brexit, the danger to the Good Friday Agreement, the Gerrymander of the Constituency Boundaries and the need for a referendum on Irish unity. I thanked those in attendance for all the work we had done together. Some of us had cooperated for over a quarter of a century. A few as far back as the hunger strikes. They presented me with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol.
Sinn Féin have close connections with the American Labour Movement. The Labourers International Union of North America, led by Terry O’Sullivan and Friends of Sinn Féin hosted a wonderful event for us. Two videos, one about Martin McGuinness, another on 100 Years of Sinn Féin and a fired up Terry set the mood for a capacity crowd which included John Samuelson. Later Terry and I went to the White House. This was probably my last visit. I have been there scores of times. The Clinton years Saint Patrick Day Celebrations were the most inclusive. With the biggest crowds.
And we had a great crowd at the Sheraton where Mary Lou addressed our New York supporters. Sean Downes chaired and Mary Lou paid tribute to Jim Cullen, our late president of Friends of Sinn Fein, making a presentation to his partner Catherine Kelly.
It was great to see so many women in attendance to welcome Mary Lou.
On Saint Patrick’s Day the Mayor Of New York, Bill de Blasio very kindly presented me with a citation and declared the Seventeenth Of March to be Gerry Adams Day. “Happy Gerry Adams Day” doesn’t have the same ring as “Happy St Patrick’s Day” but I am humbled by the honour. Even the Taoiseach seemed impressed.
Breakfast with the resurgent James Connolly Irish American Labor coalition with Chair Bill Lynn and other Labor leaders was inspiring.
Then off to the parade with Mary Lou and Michelle. A final meeting with interested New Yorkers hosted by Joseph Smith and from there back to Ireland.
Bumped into Tom DiNapoli, NY State Comptroller on the March
I will continue to be involved with our diaspora because of their importance to and commitment to Ireland. Especially in the USA and Canada. I am confident that Sinn Féin will continue to get support there. Mary Lou will do a good job of engaging with them. Without doubt Irish America will help to secure and win a referendum on Irish unity. Speed the day.