Key Irish-American congressman got red-carpet welcome for work on extra visas

Donnelly visit dominated by immigration question and denials of amnesty for undocumented in US

The US embassy and State Department cables outline Washington's backing for the Irish government and SDLP position on efforts to counter employment discrimination in Northern Ireland.

The papers, referring to a visit to Ireland by Congressman Brian Donnelly in early 1989, greeted discussion in Westminster of a new employment Bill aimed at closing the gulf in employment rates between Catholics and Protestants in the North.

Northern Ireland

Mr Donnelly said the new Bill was "a step in the right direction" and he backed calls by the SDLP and the Government for the new law to include written employment targets and timetables.

Mr Donnelly, chairman of the influential Friends of Ireland group in Washington, compared the Northern employment situation to that in the US before affirmative action plans were enacted and used this to stress the need for legally binding fair employment rules and targets.


SDLP MPs worked to amend the Westminster Bill while then SDLP leader John Hume lobbied extensively in the US against the MacBride Principles on fair employment.

These were supported by some of Hume’s Irish-American opponents, but the SDLP leader viewed them as damaging to inward-investment prospects.

Mr Donnelly, who authored a Bill to permit a visa, or NP-5, extension programme for Irish emigrants to the US, was “profusely thanked” by his Irish hosts. According to the State papers, immigration “was the principal focus of media coverage and most business meetings”.

The record shows that as “author of the ‘Donnelly Bill’ which recently has recently provided a visa bonanza to thousands of eager Irish immigrants”, the congressman was accorded “red-carpet treatment by the Government and the press”.

However, the papers also record that "while there was much public and private praise for Donnelly's efforts to secure more visas for the Irish, his stern warnings against illegal immigration to the US also got through loud and clear".

Amnesty Bill

“He told Irish authorities there was little hope for an amnesty Bill [for thousands of undocumented Irish living and working in the US]. During internal discussions at the embassy, Donnelly and [Tom] Foley staffer [Werner] Brandt promised to be helpful if the Department [of State] goes forward with a supplemental to fund NP-5 processing.”

The papers confirm that “immigration was the principal focus of media coverage”.

“From the [Taoiseach] down, the Irish thanked Donnelly profusely for the NP-5 extension program. Donnelly estimated at between 20,000 and 24,000 the numbers who benefited.”

However, the papers note the congressman was “pessimistic on longer-term immigration reform”.

"He did not believe Congress would be interested in tackling the issue head-on for a few more years."

Mr Donnelly was “frequently confronted” by media questions and at all his meetings about an amnesty for illegal Irish immigrants in the US at the time.

“There is no political equation for amnesty at this time,” the files state.

“[Donnelly] reiterated publicly time and again the importance of the Irish obtaining proper documentation before going to the US.”