Monday, June 15, 2009


From left to right; Pete Hamill; Brendan O'Leary; myself, Terry O'Sullivan; Brian Keenan.

June 15th 2009


‘This is an Assembly of the Irish American community’ one delegate declared to the large gathering in the Hilton Hotel on Saturday in New York.

‘An Assembly of the Irish American community’ he said ‘And what a community we are’.

This blog agrees.

That community was the Hilton in its myriad social and campaigning groups. Eight hundred activists from the east coast of the USA crowded into the large downtown hotel to plot a course forward in support of Irish unity. Renowned writer Pete Hamill chaired proceedings and Professor Brendan O'Leary, American Labour leader Terry O'Sullivan and former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan made contributions which were both informative and instructive before the ‘Assembly’ went into plenary session.

This blog congratulates everyone involved. It was a great event. For those who don’t watch these matters the New York conference has it origins in a Task Force on Irish Unity which I established in 2008. That task force made a number of recommendations for work in Ireland which I will return to at another time.

It also recognised the status of Irish unity as an international issue and put forward a number of suggestions to mobilise international opinion behind this proposition. Engagement with the Irish diaspora is a first step in such a process. That’s what Saturday's gathering was about. The participants seemed uplifted and energised by the proceedings.

They heard Professor O'Leary of the University of Pennylvania outline some of the ways to unite Ireland. Interestingly he also pointed out that the Scottish Nationalist Party recent victory of the British Labour Party could bring an end to the Union of England and Scotland in the quite near future.

Readers will note that this would have obvious ramifications for the so-called United Kingdom and the Good Friday Agreement part in which we live.

Brian Keenan’s contribution in itself was worth the trip. He held the audience spellbound with his account of growing up in unionist East Belfast. Brian painted very vivid words pictures, poetic and evocative in turn, of the mindsets of that section of our people who are cultural unionists, particularly the working class section.

I found his contribution very revealing and moving.

Terry O'Sullivan is General President of the Labourers International Union of North America. He is a very successful, innovative and progressive organiser who outlined to the conference how activists could organise. He also promised his support and the support of other prominent leaders of organised labour for the campaign.

Lots of ideas came out of the plenary session. The broadest consensus for activism was around the notion of a MacBride Principles type campaign. This would involve gathering resolutions at local, city, state and federal level as a means of winning political support for the issue and putting it on the Congressional and Administration agenda.

Interestingly US Senator Schumer and Congress member Elliot Engel dropped by and there were messages of support from many other public officials and representatives.

Of course the conference is only a part of the process. The real work begins – or continues in the time ahead.

I am confident that it will be successful. When Irish America can get its teeth into an issue it delivers. It did in the MacBride Principles Campaign. It did so in the infancy of the peace process and in the developing situation since then.

Some of the people in the Assembly in the Hilton are experienced activists from that era. Some are new recruits. All have one thing in common – a belief in their ability to make a difference and a connection to Ireland that is uplifting and refreshing.

So there you are, another good bit of work done. Almost time to catch the flight home. That, it goes almost without saying, is where the uniting will be done. I learned a lot from Saturdays Assembly. I also learned a lot from a session with Brian Keenan and Terry Anderson as they broke bread with us afterwards and talked over their time in captivity in Beirut. It was almost like being at a Cage Eleven re-union.

So once again thanks to everyone who contributed to this very important initiative. See you at Bodenstown next Sunday and/or in San Francisco on the following Saturday, the 27th for the west coast leg of the conversation about Irish unity.

Below find enclosed my opening remarks to Saturday’s event:

I want to dedicate my remarks today to the memory of four great Irish Americans who kept the faith and who are with us here in spirit: Dave Burke; Mike Doyle; Danny Withers and Billy Briggs

A public conversation ‘Unity – Our destination: How do we get there?'

There are two sub themes:

One for the people of Ireland – what kind of united Ireland do we need?

But the other; for the diaspora, particularly here in the USA the question is not so much how do we get there.

The question is how does the USA help the people of Ireland get there? How do you help? How can you be active and effective?

Because it isn’t a matter of IF we will get a united Ireland – be sure of that my friends.

It is a matter of HOW and WHEN.

For Sinn Féin a united Ireland is more than just about changing the flags.

We want a real republic – a national democratic republic – but that is for the people of the island of Ireland to decide, free from outside interference.

So, this conference is about what you can do about uniting Ireland.

In other words this is the start of a new phase of activism throughout Irish America.

For hundreds of years we Irish have struggled for independence and freedom from Britain.

Our struggle has taken many forms, sometimes armed and violent, sometimes electoral, sometimes peaceful.

We have fought on all fronts – we have suffered. And others have suffered also.

We have persisted; we have made enormous progress and we have prevailed.

And always, at the heart of our struggle there has been our fundamental right, our basic human right, to determine our own future.

And always, working alongside us has been the Irish diaspora, especially here in the USA.

From before the Fenians, through the Land War and the 1916 Rising, the hungerstrikes, and the peace process up to today, Irish America has supported the struggle in Ireland.

And with your support we have made progress.

There is an end to armed conflict.

The Good Friday Agreement contains a legislative, peaceful and democratic mechanism to set up a new and democratic Ireland.

I believe that the economic and political dynamics in Ireland today make a united Ireland a realistic and realisable objective in a reasonable period of time.

But there are still rigid differences, attitudes, opinions, self interests, partitionism, bigotry and sectarianism which have to be overcome.

This is a daunting challenge.

A United Ireland must guarantee liberty and justice for all.

It must ensure religious and civil liberty and equal rights and opportunities for all.

It must reconcile all sections of our people and heal the hurts between us.

It will require all the hope, strength and goodwill of the Irish diaspora here in the USA, in Canada, in Australia, in Britain, in Europe and elsewhere throughout the world.

It will require thoughtful strategies – huge outreach to our unionist brothers and sisters and a patient process of nation building to unite orange and green.

But it can be done.

We can do it, all of us together.

The peace process has given us countless examples of the unthinkable, the unexpected and the unbelievable actually happening.

20 years ago who would have believed me if I had told you there would be cessations, and a peace process, and an Agreement, and Ian Paisley or Peter Robinson sitting in government as an equal with Martin McGuinness, and Sinn Féin emerging from an election – as we did last week – as the largest party in the north???

20 years ago I wasn’t even allowed into the USA.

But that was changed. How?

Well it’s the difference between having a good idea and actually doing something about it. And that’s a big difference. All of us have good ideas. Or little day dreams.

Doing is the difference between dreaming and success.

About seventeen years ago a small number of people in this city thought it would be a good idea to hold a Presidential Forum – and invite along the Presidential hopefuls and seek from them commitments on supporting justice issues in the north – like the Pat Finucane campaign - and a visa for me.

But they didn’t just have a good idea – they decided to do something with it.

So, they organised the Forum. Bill Clinton gave his commitments. Irish America held him to them and the rest is history.

The decisions that Irish America took then allowed you to reach into the White House; to reach into 10 Downing Street; to reach into Unionist Party headquarters and to change the direction of Irish history, to give hope where none had existed and to save countless lives in the process.

That’s what you did.

Well I believe we can go one better.

Irish freedom and the end to British rule in Ireland has been the goal of generations of Irish republicans and of the diaspora.

I believe this generation can make it real. But that means not just dreaming about it. Not just singing about it.

Not just talking about it. Of course we can do all these things. Singing is particularly important.

But to succeed we have to be active. And to remember always that in activism every little bit counts. Every little step forward brings the end of the journey closer.

There is nothing we cannot do; nothing we can not achieve; if we are determined to make it happen.

Sinn Féin is determined. We have appointed Conor Murphy, Minister for Regional Development and Senator Pearse Doherty to jointly head up our United Ireland task Force.

They have a responsibility to roll a series of events throughout every Irish county and to mainstream their work into every elected forum on the island of Ireland.

This is in addition to work here in the USA, Australia, Europe and Britain.

But let me make it clear that Irish unity is bigger than Sin Féin.

We have no monopoly and we do not want a monopoly on this primary national and international issue.

It is the business of everyone who desires peace and justice and freedom and prosperity for the people of Ireland.

So my friends this conference is the beginning of a new phase of struggle.

It will be followed by others.

I believe it will mobilise and motivate the diaspora in a way never seen before.

And that is our purpose today. To begin that process.


Linda Coleman said...

Glad to hear it was a success and that so many people came to the conference. I was so disappointed that my standby travel arrangement didn't work out, but another activist got there and made this photo album for those who couldn't attend:

I actually wrote a 2-minute speech for the audience participation part of the event, and have put those thoughts into a letter, which I'm mailing today!

Best wishes for much success in your future conferences.

saz2020 said...

"Interestingly he also pointed out that the Scottish Nationalist Party recent victory of the British Labour Party could bring an end to the Union of England and Scotland in the quite near future."

We can but hope. Here in England things are finally stirring with electoral reform high on the agenda, a poll showing 54% in favour of a Republic and the Calman Commission report stirring up a hornet's nest this week.

Undoubtedly Ireland has had the worst of the so-called Union. But less face it, my working class English ancestors didn't get a say in it, or see the benefits, either. The Union was established purely for the benefit of the rich and powerful to extend their wealth and power. Which is why I've always supported home-rule for all.

Nationalists of the 4 nations trapped in this 'union' have been pulling this way and that for ever... but I've a feeling that if we can all pull together, but in different directions, we can pull the thing apart.

I've heard what was the English parliament and is now the UK parliament called the 'mother of all parliaments'. More like the doddering, grouchy, senile old grandmother of parliaments to me... 'bout time she retired, d'ya think?

Timothy Dougherty said...

I would have hoped to be in San Francisco for the west coast part of the events,but Demands and Personal Obligations keep me away. I was just in Derry,Galway and back to Dublin recently than back to the west coast of California. As a media specialist I would hope that we whom seek a new vision of a United Ireland find a voice in the new media emerging technologies, as Twitter to get the social networking out and to put a new face on a old problem viewed. A participation quest to bring the agenda out to create a new audience.

anonymous said...

I do not recall any of the people in the photo ever being at a demonstration outside the British Consulate on Third Avenue in New York City before, during, or after the hunger strike.

Linda Coleman said...

You're a media specialist, Timothy? Any ideas on getting Stephen Colbert interested in going to the San Francisco conference? His show draws huge ratings among the 18-35 demographic, and he's related to Conn Colbert of the Easter Rising--a natural match for getting the message of a re-united Ireland to a larger audience. And, if Gerry could get booked as a guest on Colbert Report, he'd sell tons of books!

Timothy Dougherty said...

well Linda, Stephen Colbert is using Twitter why not contact him and see?

Ed feighan said...

Gerry, Congratulations to you and Rita and Richard and especially the Downes brothers for a wonderful forum. The diverse group of speakers couldn"t have been better.Everyone was in agreement that the one goal will be attainable. E.F.

Linda Coleman said...

Cool, Timothy, will do.