Belfast Telegraph

How Irish diplomats took the fight to IRA cheerleaders

Contrary to what many unionists believe, the Republic's government made huge efforts over the years to disassociate itself from the IRA, says former diplomat Eamon Delaney, who found the dinner dance circuit in the US could prove particularly tricky to negotiate

President Obama might not have gone to the weekend march in Paris in solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks but there is no doubt that in recent years the United States has been to the forefront of a global war on terror and confronting "terrorists" in all guises.

But it wasn't always so. Far from it. In fact, apart from Libya and Colombia, the US was the most fertile ground for those supporting a long tradition of Irish terrorism, or guerilla activity - call it what you will. Indeed, one of the great ironies of this was the blue collar, right-wing law and order types now most vocal about the War on Terror would also offer the most explicit support for what the IRA was doing back in the "homeland" during the Troubles.

In the early 1990s, for example, two prominent IRA men were made Grand Marshals of the St Patrick's Parade in San Francisco, after they had made an audacious prison escape back in Europe. From sunny California, the consequences of the IRA did not seem as deadly as they did back in Ireland, and in fact many Irish Americans saw them as heroic.

Of course, the daring escapers could not appear at the San Francisco themselves, as they were on the run, and so they were represented at the parade by two long, empty limousines on which their names were attached.

I was aware of the San Francisco event because I was then in the Irish foreign service, posted in New York, and my colleagues at the Irish Consulate in San Francisco were forced to boycott the St Patrick's parade that year because of the honouring of the IRA men. The St Patrick's Day parade is a major occasion in Irish-America and the culmination of a month-long series of events, so a boycott is not one easily taken. However, the Irish government, and one would hope, any government, had to draw a clear line between the democratic Irish state and nation, and the murderous deeds done in its name by a messianic and murderous organisation too often given succour by a credulous and ignorant American public.

By the time I was posted to New York, this major battle for Irish-American opinion between the Irish government and the IRA and its support organisation Noraid (Irish Northern Aid) had been going on for decades and indeed had been much worse in the 1980s.

The low point was the honouring of the elderly Mick Flannery, a known IRA gunrunner, as Grand Marshall of the St Patrick's Day parade in New York in 1983, a stunt which caused the Irish government to shun the event. The boycott created great controversy and a lot of hurt in a community which didn't understand why they couldn't honour both "freedom fighters" and the Irish government. But if the Irish government and State was to have any credibility it had to draw a clear line, often difficult to do, in a wide and varied community where IRA supporters and activists could pop up anywhere.

Some of the media in Ireland ridiculed this obsessive policy of boycotting events that had any link to the IRA and mocked the way Irish ministers and diplomats would step off platforms, for a so-called "constitutional leak", when Noraid banners passed by!

But many Irish-Americans, tired of the often simplistic and ignorant attitude to Northern Ireland in their community and the damaging association with the IRA, welcomed this strict policy, and by the early 1990s, the Irish government had won back most of the community, and could attend the very many dinner dances and events organised by county associations, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of St Patrick and the New York Police Department, once a hardcore bed of Noraid support, a fact that is hard to comprehend now in the post-9/11 era.

Some of the dinner dances I attended were the first ones attended in decades by a representative of the Irish government. And they were not without tension. Indeed, one could be almost physically attacked by these nationalist dinosaurs. On one occasion at the Limerick County Association of NY dinner dance, I was on a platform with the Labour TD Jim Kemmy when some abusive hecklers came towards us shouting about "Free State traitors". Kemmy was unmoved. Stand your ground, he said, these people are in a time warp! On another occasion, I had just left the stage of the Longford Association dinner dance, when a mystery guest was introduced - it was Gerry McGeough, not a Noraid supporter, but an actual IRA man on the run! McGeough was wanted in Europe for IRA activities and in the US. As it happens, we became friendly decades later. McGeough created a conservative magazine called The Hibernian and in 2007, he was arrested for a 1980s offence - in my opinion harshly. However, in 1991, when McGeough was rolled out at a New York dinner dance, I was furious and a major row ensued before we accepted that the guest was sprung on the event and was not authorised by the organising committee.

It is worth reminding readers of all of this and of the major struggle the Irish government had against the paramilitarism done in Ireland's name, along with the attempted take-over of Irish opinion abroad, especially in the crucial Irish-American community. This struggle went on for decades and, of course, finally ended in the 1990s with the modern peace process, which crucially also had major US involvement.

It is especially worth reminding northern readers, as many unionist politicians still make allegations about how the South was somehow "soft" on the IRA, and offered "safe havens" and propaganda outlets. Southerners find this a bit rich. On the contrary, the Republic was especially robust in its approach to the IRA as it was precisely our history, traditions and democracy that were being hijacked and subverted.

Thus, when paramilitaries were jabbering away on TV and radio in the North and in the UK, the South brought in Section 31 which prevented organisations which were then violent and undemocratic from abusing the national airwaves. Whereas the North had the Diplock court system, presided over by one judge and no jury (as the IRA had been intimidating jurors) the South had the Special Criminal Court with just one judge and the ability to convict someone of IRA membership on the word of a Garda Superintendent.

So when it came to applying the law to republican subversives, the South was not to be found wanting and civil liberties were often not a high priority.

Even the imprisonment of the killers of Garda Jerry McCabe is a useful example of this. In objective terms, they would have had a good case for release under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), and Sinn Fein certainly felt they did, but thes outhern state refused to budge, arguing that they had killed a policeman and the case was exceptional.

Some might wonder was the life of murdered RUC officers whose killers walked free in the North under the GFA were worth less than those of the Gardai, but the Dublin government saw it differently. Shooting southern Irish policeman and prison officers creates serious bitterness, as Martin McGuinness discovered when he ran for the Irish Presidency in 2012.

This may be all history now, but the consequences are still with us and still being worked through. Fighting for the integrity of the Irish state in the international arena was a part of this, and given the emotional tide of Irish-American opinion it was not an easy task to do, but it is to the credit of Irish diplomats that they did it, and sent a clear message about what could and shouldn't be done in Ireland's name.

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