Seán Ronan was a senior official in Ireland’s Department of External (now Foreign) Affairs in New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly when, on Saturday, October 12th, 1968, he got a phone call asking if he would like to speak to people who were picketing his hotel.
Outside were “about 20 persons nearly all carrying placards about Partition and Derry”, three of whom proceeded to “harangue” him as neither issue had been raised at the United Nations by the Irish government. Ronan listened to what they had to say before outlining the “policy of national reconciliation … vis-à-vis the North”, explaining that “Government policy now was co-operation in practical matters of mutual concern without sacrifice of principle”. Furthermore, “partition would not be solved by tabling resolutions at the United Nations”, and “the matter would have to be settled between Dublin, Belfast and London”.
Irish diplomats were always sure to keep abreast of Irish-American opinion and occasional calls to raise the question of Irish unity at the UN were nothing new. What gave them a renewed impetus now was the RUC baton-charge of a civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, 1968, in full view of TV cameras.
Events in Northern Ireland in the months before the outbreak of the Troubles in earnest in August 1969 had a profound impact on Irish America, which is reflected in the reports of Irish diplomats published in the latest instalment of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series, covering the years 1965 to 1969.
Established as a partnership with the National Archives and the Department of Foreign Affairs, the DIFP series publishes archival material relating to Ireland’s foreign relations since 1919. What the new volume does, however, is shift that focus towards events much closer to home.
One official in Boston commented that a perception that the Irish government was passive in the face of Stormont’s repression was harming its reputation in Irish America
Through the 1960s, the Fianna Fáil governments of Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch opted for practical co-operation with the Stormont government of Terence O’Neill. But O’Neill’s own attempts at reforms prompted a unionist backlash, and the events in Derry were publicised internationally. Many in Irish America were outraged by the treatment of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (though as one official noted, many of them “do not approve of the Negro civil rights movement and resent any comparison with them”).
Picketing and protests directed at Irish diplomatic missions across the US intensified in 1968 and 1969, and the Irish ambassador in Washington DC, William P Fay, became increasingly concerned about this. He was hardly faced with a mass movement: one protest in March 1969 outside the New York consulate by the ‘United Ireland Publicity Committee’ consisted of “about 14 persons in the picket party. Other than a few shouts about ‘traitors’, the demonstrators were orderly, even sheepish”.
But even fringe groups had the potential to generate bad publicity. One official in Boston commented that a perception that the Irish government was passive in the face of Stormont’s repression was harming its reputation in Irish America. It was essential, in Fay’s view, that the Irish government get their case across to the US public.
Some officials had already leaned upon more traditional networks of support. After the first wave of pickets in October 1968 Ireland’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Con Cremin, reached out to the New York State Chaplain of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Fr Donald O’Callaghan, whom he felt would ‘endeavour to calm down those who are impatient’. But the AOH itself was not immune to internal tensions arising from events north of the Irish border.
Reports by diplomats reflect how the Irish communities of the US were being energised by the burgeoning conflict in Northern Ireland
In June 1969, Pádraic MacKernan, the deputy consul in New York, reported that “some of the older members were in favour of picketing and demonstrations outside British Consulates, and other offices. The younger members disagree with this and apparently favour ‘more concrete’ action ... I believe that what is intended is a drive for funds to be devoted to assisting the Civil Rights Movement. How these funds would be channelled to the Movement and to whom is not clear”. He was certainly not the last to pose such questions about fundraising in the US.
These reports by diplomats reflect how the Irish communities of the US were being energised by the burgeoning conflict in Northern Ireland. They record monies being collected and rallies being organised, differing opinions on ways forward, and differing plans being hatched accordingly.
Within them are names that would become far more familiar as the Troubles erupted: one pro-civil rights meeting in New York in March 1969 was addressed by figures as diverse as Michael Flannery, the future founder of Noraid, and Austin Currie, one of the founding members of the SDLP.
As well as exploring the grassroots, the diplomatic reports touch upon the higher echelons of US politics, where familiar names also appear. In January 1969, Fay reported that Senator Edward Kennedy had offered to facilitate an audience with “friendly senators”, while in June he reported how two Democratic Congressmen, Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts and Phillip Burton of California, had sponsored “a bipartisan approach to President Nixon expressing their distress over ‘discrimination against Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland’”, in the hope that Nixon would raise the matter with the British.
Frank Aiken, the Minister for External Affairs, had previously told Burton that it was not up to him to tell US politicians what to do, but also seemed to drop a hint by suggesting that such a tactic as Fay now described was “open to them if they wished”.
Aiken could compare the Orange Order to the Ku Klux Klan in private, but was wary of the Irish government taking any public stance, lest it inflame an already delicate situation. His ambassador concurred: Fay concluded that “it would be prudent for us not to become involved in any congressional activity on this subject, and indeed for much the same reasons as we have refused to raise the matter at the United Nations”.
Fay’s assessment came days after an Irish general election. The veteran Aiken would not be part of Jack Lynch’s new government, which assembled soon after in July 1969.
And after that came August.
John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project: see difp.ie. Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. XIII: 1965-1969 is published by the Royal Irish Academy