There were two books I particularly enjoyed reading over the Christmas period: United States journalist Chris Matthews's Bobby Kennedy: a Raging Spirit and Maurice Fitzpatrick's companion book of his documentary film, John Hume in America: from Derry to DC. Both were instructive reads for someone like me recently arrived in the US and eager to understand the country and its manifold Irish connections.
The Kennedy book draws attention to the enduring reality of Irish-American identity, the author’s and his subject’s. Matthews points out how important his ancestral roots were to Bobby, “the most Irish of the Kennedy children”, as he describes him.
For its part, Fitzpatrick’s book provides a valuable summary of developments in Northern Ireland and in Anglo-Irish relations during the 40 years of Hume’s political career. It also serves as a useful reminder of the role played by the US, spurred on by Irish-America, in helping deliver peace and political progress in Northern Ireland.
This positive US role in Irish affairs was not pre-ordained. Fitzpatrick shows it required a determined effort over a long number of years to circumvent an inbuilt resistance in Washington to doing anything with regard to Northern Ireland that did not square with British views.
Fitzpatrick chronicles Hume’s unrelenting pursuit of US support for his analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland and for the kind of negotiated political settlement he craved. Hume concluded early on that effective US support for peace in Northern Ireland could not be secured by energising grassroots opinion in Irish-America. Instead, the Washington political class needed to be brought on board.
In his bid to conquer political Washington, Hume enjoyed the dedicated support of successive Irish diplomats posted in the United States. It is refreshing to see a gifted generation of Irish officials, Seán O’hUiginn, Seán Donlon, Michael Lillis, Ted Smyth and Jim Sharkey, all now retired but whose careers overlapped with the Northern Troubles, getting recognition for their efforts in winning the support of key Irish-American politicians, notably “the Four Horsemen”, senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaker Tip O’Neill, and New York governor Hugh Carey. The late Dermot Gallagher, former ambassador to the US and secretary-general at Foreign Affairs, also deserves credit for helping galvanise Irish America.
Hume’s first and most enduring American political friendship was with Ted Kennedy, and Fitzpatrick recalls how Hume borrowed money from his local Credit Union in order to travel to Bonn to meet him at the residence of the then Irish ambassador, Seán Ronan.
That was an astute investment on Hume’s part which produced its first dividend in 1977 when president Carter was persuaded by the Four Horsemen, against the advice of the state department, to make a ground-breaking presidential statement on Northern Ireland in which he expressed US backing for a form of government there that could command cross-community support, and pledged to encourage investment in Northern Ireland if the violence could be brought to an end.
Fitzpatrick also highlights the role played by US influence in bringing about the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the importance of US financial backing for the International Fund for Ireland. Tip O’Neill’s relationship with president Reagan was crucial in that regard, helping as it did to counterbalance Reagan’s broader ideological affinities with Margaret Thatcher.
Fitzpatrick shows that the relationship with Irish America was not invariably smooth and there were rocky periods during the 1980s hunger strikes and when Hume opposed the MacBride Principles. Despite Hume’s labours in support of dialogue and democratic methods, there were always Irish-Americans who were prepared to give succour to IRA violence. Fitzpatrick argues that Hume was instrumental in securing a US visa for Gerry Adams in 1994, a decision president Clinton took in the teeth of some stiff resistance within his own administration. The rapport that was built up with Clinton, and his hands-on engagement with Northern Ireland, contributed to the success of the Good Friday Agreement.
The interest of Irish-American politicians in Ireland continues to operate as a factor in our favour in the US. In my early months in Washington, I have been welcomed to the offices of members of Congress named Boyle, Byrne, Crowley, Kennedy, Kildee, King, Leahy, McCarthy, Meehan, Murphy, Neal, Rooney and Ryan to list but a few of the members of today's Congressional Friends of Ireland. In November, when the first phase of the Brexit negotiations was coming to a head and the Border in Ireland was emerging as a make-or-break issue, Congressmen Brendan Boyle and Brian Fitzpatrick contributed a bipartisan Op-Ed to The Irish Times, making plain their opposition to any hardening of the border in Ireland, thus signalling US congressional interest in the implications of Brexit for Ireland.
The first high-level visit I hosted since arriving in Washington, by Minister Simon Coveney in October, brought home to me the continued value of the Irish calling card in the US capital, as during a short visit the Minister was able to meet speaker Ryan (whose family roots are in Kilkenny) and both the majority and minority leadership in the house of representatives, as well as two members of the US cabinet. Few if any countries of our size could expect to enjoy such wide access in Washington.
Readable and accessible
Maurice Fitzpatrick has done a service with this readable, accessible book in bringing to light the fascinating story of the rise of Irish influence in Washington and the central role played by John Hume in building that tradition of constructive US engagement with Ireland.
I first met John Hume properly when I was attached to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in 1994-95, although I had come across him earlier in Brussels and Strasbourg. By that time, Hume already had a lot of political miles on his clock and what struck me about him was the complete doggedness he exhibited in the pursuit of his long-held principles, rejecting violence and embracing constitutional approaches that, to his eternal credit, eventually prevailed with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
In his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1998, Hume quoted WB Yeats’s words that “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart”, but his own career, including his achievements in America, might better be encapsulated by another Yeats line – “peace comes dropping slow”. Willing to deliver his “single transferable speech” again and again until its arguments hit home, John Hume never gave up on his personal quest for peaceful political agreement. Among the many things for which he deserves credit is the fact that he brought Irish-Americans along with him on a journey that helped turn the US into a not inconsiderable force for peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington