By the time you are reading this column RG and I will be winging our way across the Atlantic to New York for a two night stopover. I am there to speak at the Irish Echo Labor awards. It’s an annual event at which the trade union movement in the USA, and the Irish Echo, celebrate the hard work and achievements of individual Labor activists and honourees.
It is also be an opportunity for me to personally thank many of the Trade Union leaders for their continued support for the peace process, and in particular for their backing of Áras Uí Chonghaile (The James Connolly Centre on the Falls Road) which was opened in April of this year by President Michael D Higgins. The US Labor Movement provided much needed funding, along with Belfast City Council and others, to turn the dream of Áras Uí Chonghaile into a reality.
It’s hard to believe but it is almost exactly 25 years since RG and I made the first of many such visits to the USA. At that time, and within days of the IRA cessation of August 1994, I had just met An Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and SDLP Leader John Hume at Government Buildings in Dublin. Border communities moved quickly to unblock scores of border crossings that the British military had bombed or concreted over the years. And RG and I were on our way to the USA for a four week trek – coast to coast – to meet Irish American leaders and communities. Subsequently, the British Prime Minister John Major was moved to lift the broadcast restrictions on Sinn Féin. It was a decision taken in no small part because of the influence of Irish America and the criticism of US journalists.
25 years later and Irish America continues to play apivotal role in the efforts to strength the peace process and to advance the Sinn Féin goal of Irish unity. The Labor Movement in the USA is a critical component of Irish America. That influence has been especially evident in recent months in the lobbying by Irish American groups and leaders around the Brexit issue and the need for a referendum on Irish Unity.
On Capitol Hill their efforts secured support for the so-called ‘Backstop.’ The opposition of key Congressional leaders to British and DUP efforts to undermine the Good Friday Agreement has been very public. One recent example of this was the intervention by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which she again rejected suggestions of a speedy trade deal between the USA and British government following Brexit.
Speaker Pelosi said: “The Good Friday Agreement serves as the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and as a beacon of hope for the entire world… Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, … If Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”
This has been reinforced by Congress members, including Richie Neal, who is the Chair of the powerful Congressional Ways and Means Committee.
25 years ago our journey brought us to Boston where we were greeted by Senator Ted Kennedy. On Thursday we arrive at JFK airport in New York. As we land the debacle over Brexit at Westminster gets worse. An unelected minority government, with an unelected Prime Minister at its head, is seeking to reshape the British political landscape in a way that will further its right wing, populist, agenda. Claims of shock and outrage that Johnson will ignore the law - just passed requiring him to seek an extension from the EU for negotiations - rings hollow to Irish citizens who can recall countless occasions when British governments – both Tory and Labour - ignored their own laws and international laws in their dealings with Ireland.
The economic, political and social threats posed by British machinations to the island of Ireland are enormous. Another economic report last week predicted thousands of job losses in the North. Last Thursday An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce that checks on goods entering the South would be required “near the Border” in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He also confirmed that the government is in discussions with the European Commission over what cross-border checks will be required. He should be making it clear that there will be no checks anywhere on the island of Ireland.