Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.
The effect of the US and its Irish diaspora on the issue of the partition of Ireland is an incredibly interesting but often overlooked subject. The Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID) was a key organisation that represented Irish Republican ideals in the US. Analysing the impact of the NORAID makes it imperative to discuss the impact of the Irish diaspora in the US in the North following on from the Troubles. NORAID was also aided by many other key figures and organisations during this period, and so this article will attempt to provide a key insight into the wide-ranging effect of the Irish diaspora up to the Belfast Agreement.
Prior to the foundation of NORAID in 1969, there was already a well-established Irish Republican cause in the US. Dating back to Fenian movements in the early 19th century, the mantle of Irish nationalism had been taken up by and expanded upon by Clan na Gael for many years. Figures like John Devoy, Daniel Cohalan and Joseph McGarrity had cemented themselves within the upper echelon of the US political system. The layout of the American political and judicial system meant that Irish born Americans could reach far greater heights in society than would be possible in Ireland. The ability of the Irish diaspora to be able to lobby American politicians so effectively is a testament to how important the Irish voice was considered in US affairs during the period. Though hampered by the isolationist policies of De Valera and his predecessors, figures like McGarrity still attempted to support IRA activities in the 1920s and 1930s.
During the war, however, US and Irish relations worsened considerably. The American ambassador to Ireland, David Gray even recommended to President Roosevelt to seize strategic strongholds in the Republic. In turn, the mood of the country for further conflict had dampened since the War of the Independence and so enthusiasm to fund American organisations keen on backing the IRA was limited. British and American relations, however, remained crucial to the North throughout the twentieth century. According to Patterson, a strong Irish cultural identity was a persistent factor for many Americans, thereby making Irish affairs a key issue for the American government. This was especially so with the contentious border issue, and British relations with America became even more significant after World War Two, as British dependence on America made the importance of Ireland and the British treatment of Catholics in the North crucial.
However, while the lines of communication were severely lessened during the 1940s and 1950s, in the background there was a renewed interest within the Irish diaspora in Irish affairs as a result of the continued problems of partition in the North. NORAID would provide the impetus for a greater interest in the Irish cause by the American diaspora. Initially, NORAID was such a well-protected organisation that according to Brian Hanley, nearly all members were Irish born Republicans as the organisation did not know if it could fully trust Irish Americans. By 1971, NORAID had become the sole representative of the Provisional IRA in the US, a fact that its newspaper, the Irish People publicised openly. Due to the dangers of being a front for this organisation, it is understandable that membership was scarce to come by for Irish Americans. However, by the early 1980s, the position of Irish Americans within NORAID became much stronger.
NORAID’s newspaper the Irish People was crucial in the burgeoning of Irish Republican ideals outside of Ireland. Through the paper, NORAID wished to build upon work done by Irish republican newspapers in other countries such as the Irish Democrat in Britain in the internationalisation of the Irish cause. With such a large Irish contingent, particularly in the east of the country in areas such as Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, the message of Irish Republicanism travelled very fast and very far. NORAID was also involved very heavily in political and social matters that went far beyond merely arms funding. NORAID had a key connection to the MacBride Principles Campaign. This was designed to regulate US companies based in Northern Ireland. The acceptance of this legislation by over 13 US states also created an impetus for the British government to pass the Fair Employment Act, designed to lessen Catholic discrimination in the North. Many NORAID members also became members of Cumann na Saoirse. According to Wilson, by this time many NORAID traditionalists had gained a renewed faith in the ability to create change through politics.
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The tremendous following and support that NORAID had managed to amass during this period made it a very potent force for Irish Republicanism. Their work was very important, as although Catholic births in the North remained very high, this, in turn, was offset by even higher emigration rates, mainly going to the US. This subsequently strengthened the Irish diaspora, while still ensuring that Catholics remained in a slight minority in the North, allowing a Protestant stronghold on government affairs to develop. According to Ruane and Todd, as the Northern Ireland state was rejected by Nationalists North and South, and ignored as much as possible by the British, Unionists then turned to discriminatory practices in order to maintain their state. Unionists believed Nationalists opposition to be inevitable regardless of their policies and so they set about trying to limit the growth and power of the Catholic population. This was why NORAID was pivotal to the Irish cause, as the powerless minority of Catholics in the North, could be supported by the ever-growing Irish diaspora under the banner of NORAID.
During the push for civil rights in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Terence O’Neil was facing tremendous external pressure to improve the situation. The Irish diaspora was continually lobbying the American government to pressure Britain for change. According to James Loughlin, external pressures was the consummate factor in O’Neil’s decision to adopt a policy of conciliationism with Catholics. In the mid-seventies, Gerry Adams spoke of the need to ‘broaden the battlefield’, in order to improve the Republican cause. It was during the Troubles that NORAID would show its worth to Republicans. Of the funds that were disclosed, NORAID raised at least 200,000 dollars every year for the Republican cause since 1971. While much of the time the funds did not directly go to the purchasing of arms, they still indirectly aided IRA activity. Tipperary IRA member Michael Flannery asserted that the knowledge that funds were being sent home to ease the financial burden on the families of IRA men, certainly boosted morale and increased fighters’ willingness to sacrifice for the Irish cause.
Towards the mid-1980s, however, a change was occurring in the American mainstream that would deeply affect NORAID. Despite reports in its newspaper the Irish People, NORAID itself always insisted that it never directly funded arms for the Provisional IRA. According to Debra Cornelius, the American media consistently linked NORAID and the IRA, with over 60% of articles published in the media linking the two organisations. This was done specifically to delegitimise NORAID within the American public perception and to paint Irish Republicans as deviants in America. However, the US was still heavily involved in attempting to create a resolution in the North. The US government put a tremendous amount of pressure on Britain, resulting in the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) in 1985, formalising a link between the governments North and South, This, along with the continued support from America, particularly through President Clinton, paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement, finally bringing a relative peace to a partition issue that had raged for 70 years.
Ultimately, the partition of Ireland was incredibly influential in both American and Irish affairs, and the subsequent problems that emerged in the North cemented the importance of the Irish diaspora in America in championing the rights of its native brethren. Though partition caused a great deal of pain for Catholics both North, South, and abroad, the cohesive nature of the fight for recognition and equality through the civil rights movement and funding for arms was instrumental in showcasing the strength of Ireland’s emigrant population. Although NORAID’s form of more physical resistance would be beneficial to Irish Catholics during the Troubles, it was through Irish American figures in government that the true strides for recognition and equality for Catholics in the North were made. With an Irish-American President, and a government and judicial system with many Irish Americans, the Irish diaspora in the US was able to achieve an ‘end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence’; which was more for Nationalists that any figure or organisation on home soil could.
© 2018 Paul Barrett