Sinn Féin scales up US campaign efforts ahead of St Patrick’s Day

The party’s pervasive presence in the US has long been a challenge for Irish governments

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill: as well as engagement with decision-makers in the American capital, Sinn Féin’s US arm has also increased its online presence since the Covid-19 pandemic hit

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill: as well as engagement with decision-makers in the American capital, Sinn Féin’s US arm has also increased its online presence since the Covid-19 pandemic hit

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Millions of Americans who opened their print and e-paper editions of the New York Times and Washington Post on Wednesday were greeted with an unusual ad.

“A United Ireland – Let the people have their say” read the half-page advertisement, which called on the Irish Government to “promote and plan” for Irish unity. It also urged the British government to set the date for a Border poll.

“With your support we can be the first generation of Americans to visit a free and united Ireland,” it stated in bold print.

As Taoiseach Micheál Martin prepares to hold his first meeting, albeit virtually, on Wednesday with President Joe Biden to mark St Patrick’s Day, the ads were a reminder of the outsized influence Sinn Féin continues to exert in Irish-America.

That influence has grown in recent years, as Brexit and the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement has renewed focus on Irish-American affairs. For Sinn Féin and many Irish Republicans, the fallout from Brexit has thrown up a once-in-a-generation opportunity to push for a united Ireland.

“Irish unity is the one thing that unites Irish America,” says Ciarán Quinn, Sinn Féin’s representative for North America. “Irish-America sees the changes that are happening in Ireland, and they believe that there is an opportunity here to achieve Irish unity through peaceful and democratic means, something that generations of Irish-Americans have worked towards.”

The ads are the latest manifestation of a new engagement by Sinn Féin in America. They have also brought fresh scrutiny about the party’s fund-raising in the United States.

The small print at the bottom of the ad states that it was paid by “Friends of Sinn Féin Inc, which is registered with the Department of Justice, Washington DC, under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as an agent of Sinn Féin.”

US fundraising

Friends of Sinn Féin – the US fundraising arm of the party – is one of a handful of “Friends of Sinn Féin” groups scattered around the world, including in Canada. It is registered with the US department of justice and is required to file accounts each year. Latest filings showed that the organisation raised $295,000 (€262,000) in the six-month period to April last year – the vast majority of which came from its annual fundraising dinner in New York.

Friends of Sinn Féin have declined to disclose the cost of the ads, which are thought to run to tens of thousands. In addition to the two half-page ads, they also ran full-page ads in the Irish Echo and the Irish Voice. The bulk of the funds for the ad campaign was generated by a recent online funding drive.

The campaign is the latest effort by Sinn Féin to up its engagement with Irish-America ahead of next week’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Yesterday Sinn Féin representatives held a virtual briefing with members of the Massachusetts state legislators. A meeting with the bipartisan Friends of Ireland group of congress members on Capitol Hill is scheduled for next week.

In recent days, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, and Sinn Féin MP John Finucane, son of murdered Belfast solicitor John Finucane, briefed the ad-hoc committee on the Belfast Agreement. The group, which was established in 2019, includes more than two dozen prominent Irish-Americans, including former members of congress and ambassadors.

According to people on the call, O’Neill made the point that Sinn Féin was now the largest party on the island of Ireland, and that Mary Lou McDonald, the first female leader of the Opposition, is likely to be the next taoiseach. The Sinn Féin briefing was one of several the committee has held with political groups and stakeholders involved in Northern Irish issues.

Online presence

As well as engagement with decision-makers in Washington, Sinn Féin’s US arm has also increased its online presence since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Earlier this month, it hosted a conversation with former IRA leader Bik Mac Farlane, billed as “The Inside Story of the 1981 Hunger Strike”. Mark Guilfoyle, president of Friends of Ireland USA, said the group has beefed up its social media presence over the last year. “That’s really where we’ve seen the uptick in interest. When it comes to Irish unity in particular, the engagement is off the charts,” he told The Irish Times.

How to respond to the pervasive presence of Sinn Féin has been a consistent challenge for Irish governments. During the Troubles when the IRA-aligned NorAid was openly fundraising in Irish communities in America, Irish diplomats and officials skilfully worked behind the scenes to channel Irish-American concerns about Northern Ireland away from Republican violence and towards a peaceful solution.

But it was the presence of Gerry Adams, who had flown to Washington for the event, that elicited the biggest cheer of the night 

While times are now very different, successive Irish governments since the peace process have not always been on the same page as Sinn Féin. A measure of the continued allure of Sinn Féin, and Gerry Adams in particular, was in evidence at an event in October 2019 to honour Congressman Richard Neal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the event, which was organised by Irish-American Democrats. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe was also present as he was in town for the World Bank-IMF meetings. But it was the presence of Gerry Adams, who had flown to Washington for the event, that elicited the biggest cheer of the night as he was feted by most of the audience of Washington insiders.

But senior US political figures dispute the idea that Irish-America is somehow in thrall to one political party, pointing to the work that goes on behind the scenes by the Irish Embassy in Washington, which has strong relationships with senior figures in Washington.

‘Caricature’

Bruce Morrison, the former congressman behind the Morrison visas, questions what he calls the “caricature” of Irish-America, and the notion that America is somehow divorced from Irish political realities. Members of the Ad-Hoc Committee on the Good Friday Agreement, which he co-chairs, “have spent years learning, observing and being involved in issues in Ireland North and South,” he says. While they represent a spectrum of views, he says “all have always been concerned about the wellbeing of the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland”, adding: “These Americans are the reason there is a Good Friday agreement.”

Congressman Neal, who co-chairs the Friends of Ireland group and chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which ultimately have a say over a US-UK trade deal, agrees. As a seasoned observer of Irish affairs – he was centrally involved in the US-brokered peace process during the Clinton administration – he says that he and colleagues in the caucus have always spoken to all sides in the Northern Ireland issue. “I was on first-name basis with leaders of all the political parties, and on the British and the Irish side. Everyone gets a full hearing.”

Biden warned Britain last year that any trade deal between the US and the UK'must be contingent upon respect' for the Belfast Agreement

Ireland’s Ambassador in Washington, Dan Mulhall, who is in constant contact with senior political figures in the US capital, similarly points to the fact that there has always been a range of views in Irish-America. “What has struck me is that everyone I have spoken to is strongly supportive of the Good Friday agreement. On the issues that matter, there is strong consensus across the board.”

Like the Irish Embassy, the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington – which unlike the Welsh and Scottish bureaus is located in its own office rather than in the British embassy – also has strong relations with political figures in Washington.

Both First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill are scheduled to attend their annual St Patrick’s Day breakfast, which is taking place virtually on Wednesday. A recent memorial service for their former director, Norman Houston – a hugely respected figure in DC – featured a tribute by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, an indication of the links between the bureau and the Biden administration.

Key opportunity

As for President Biden himself, Irish officials in Washington see the Biden presidency as a key opportunity to advance Irish interests, given the president’s Irish-American heritage. The former vice-president has been a visitor at the Irish Ambassador’s residence in Washington, most recently in September 2018 when he launched the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland.

“He’s someone who has identified strongly as an Irish-American throughout his political career,” says Mulhall. “He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Friends of Ireland in 1981 and is deeply knowledgeable about Ireland, which is certainly a positive.” As Mulhall notes, Biden’s interest in Irish political affairs stretch back to his time in Congress. Recently unsealed state papers show that, as a senator, Biden proposed a resolution in 1990 calling for the Birmingham Six case to be reopened. He also urged then president George HW Bush to raise the issue with Margaret Thatcher.

As for his views on the current situation in Northern Ireland, Biden warned Britain last year that any trade deal between the US and the UK “must be contingent upon respect” for the Belfast Agreement. His comments – which followed a similar warning from Pelosi – came at a delicate political moment in UK-EU relations.

Now Biden is meeting Martin at a time when there is renewed concern about Britain’s commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol. The prospect of the White House weighing-in on Brexit is a concern in London. In particular, it is understood that Brexit negotiator David Frost was unnerved by the inclusion of his EU counterpart, Marco Sefcovic, in the Friends of Ireland briefing with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Wednesday.

Biden is likely to be briefed ahead of Wednesday’s bilateral meeting by officials who have a long-standing interest in Irish issues. Jake Sullivan and deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon have strong links with the Washington Ireland Program. Amanda Sloat, senior director of European Affairs at the NSC, studied in Belfast and is an expert on Brexit.

Whether Biden uses his meeting next Wednesday with the Taoiseach to publicly comment on the latest Brexit developments on the Northern Irish Protocol remains to be seen.

Dublin, London, Belfast and Brussels will be watching closely.