The drink flowed as diners chewed on filet mignon and enjoyed a rousing political speech in between traditional Irish songs performed by a band in one of New York City’s top hotels.
Every year, American supporters of Sinn Féin gather at the Sheraton Hotel New York Times Square Hotel in Manhattan for a lavish dinner. Afterwards they adjourn to Rosie O'Grady's Irish pub for after-dinner pints.
Last year's event was no different to those in previous years. Organised by Friends of Sinn Féin USA, the party's American wing, the dinner is the highlight of its annual fundraising efforts.
In November, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and Donegal TD Pearse Doherty addressed hundreds of donors at the 2014 event. Some 650 tickets at $500 a head were sold for the event, which the party estimated would raise about $350,000 (€315,000). Not all the tickets were taken up; a considerable number of empty seats could be seen on the night.
Still, the New York dinner was, and is, the biggest money-spinner of the fundraising calendar for an organisation that has raised $12 million (€10.8 million) since it was established in 1995 in the early days of the peace process.
Friends of Sinn Féin submits detailed logs of all money raised, and from whom it raises the cash, with the United States department of justice, a requirement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara), a 1938 law that forces agents of foreign political or quasi-political groups to make regular public disclosures of relations with the foreign entity.
“There is a three-member board, of which I am chairman, that ensures that we imitate Caesar’s wife – we want to be sure that we are above reproach,” said
, president of Friends of Sinn Féin, in effect Sinn Féin’s lead agent in the US.
“So we actually file more than is required and I think for that reason we have built up an enviable record with the justice department, which is the repository of those reports,” said Mr Cullen, a human rights and property lawyer who is also a retired US army brigadier general and a former chief judge of the US army court of criminal appeals.
New York and New Jersey building companies and firms associated with the construction industry dominate Friends of Sinn Féin's donors.
Among the most prominent people behind the group's donor companies are Tyrone-born Pat Donaghy, the man behind the construction behemoth Structure Tone; Fay Devlin, also from Co Tyrone, of Eurotech Construction; Henegan Construction Co, founded by the late Paul Henegan and now run by executives Maureen Henegan, Paul's daughter, and Paul Bryce; and JT Magen & Company, the building company owned by businessman Maurice Regan.
Calls to the offices of Mr Donaghy, Mr Devlin, Mr Bryce and Mr Regan seeking comment for this article were not returned.
“The American businesspeople who support us have been there from the very beginning, certainly since the Good Friday agreement and in the cases of some highly successful people, one who is involved in a multibillion dollar turnover, he has been with us since the beginning and others who are very close to that range,” said Mr Cullen.
For many of the smaller building contractors and other construction industry suppliers, attending the Sinn Féin dinner is more about staying in favour with the big players of the New York building sector than about supporting Sinn Féin or the Northern Irish peace process.
One Irish-American recalls attending the annual Friends of Sinn Féin dinner and sitting next to an Italian man involved in the building industry who knew nothing about Sinn Féin nor had he any interest in Ireland.
“There might be 500 people at the dinner but many would be [builders’] suppliers . . . The illusion is that there are 500 core Sinn Féin supporters around the room,” he said.
Top of the list of donors, either individual or corporate, is
, the Irish- American businessman and philanthropist who gave away, to charitable, social and educational causes, most of the multibillion dollar fortune made on duty-free shopping.
You will not find Chuck Feeney at the Sheraton. His commitment to Friends of Sinn Féin had a specific purpose: to finance the opening of an office in Washington DC to lead the lobbying effort for the party and the Northern Irish peace process. The money came through multiple instalments over a period of three years in the mid-1990s to fund the running of the office and is long spent.
Mr Feeney’s money came “at a crucial time” for the organisation as Friends of Sinn Féin established itself, said Mr Cullen. “Chuck’s donation to us was understood from the very beginning to be of a limited term and of a limited amount and that was met. It was very much appreciated,” he said.
Among the people working for Sinn Féin in the US is the party’s American representative Rita O’Hare. Ms O’Hare is the party’s main representative and lobbyist in the US and regularly meets members of Congress and other senior public figures to press the party’s case on various issues.
The other major source of funds for the party's US wing, the American labour movement, has donated more than $1 million over Friends of Sinn Féin's 20-year history. The second largest single donor behind Mr Feeney is one of the biggest American trade unions, the Laborers' International Union of North America, various chapters of which have donated a total of $221,141 over the years.
The Midwest Region Laborers' Political League, based in Illinois, one of the strongest regions for trade union support in the country and home to one of the largest Irish-American communities around the Chicago area, is fourth on the list of big donors, giving the party a total of $135,000.
The ties with US trade unions date back to George Meany, the longtime chief of the powerful AFL-CIO, the country's biggest union, who was of Irish descent.
Many Irish emigrants, including republicans and former IRA men, were involved in the emergence of the American trade union movement. Mike Quill, a native of Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, and a member of the anti-Treaty IRA in the Civil War, emigrated to the US in 1926 and helped establish the Transport Workers Union of America, a union of New York City subway workers, in 1934.
Irish-American financial support is nothing new in the history of Irish nationalism. The US has been a major source of funding for Irish nationalism since the 19th century and in more recent times, the republican movement. Éamon de Valera, who spent most of the War of Independence fundraising in the US, raised about $5 million on his tour, an extraordinary sum in 1920s America.
“They are tapping into a lot of pre-existing networks but also trying to create new ones, and that has always been the republican approach right up to the present,” said
, professor of modern Irish history at UCD. “Obviously it is a hell of a lot more upfront an endeavour because of the evolution of Sinn Féin, its growing presence in the Republic and the end of the IRA campaign.”
Prof Ferriter said it has always been “very fashionable” for Irish-Americans and Irish-American groups to lend money to “the cause”.
“You can sell a relatively unsophisticated message when you are abroad about what the Irish cause is,” he said.
The 1994 IRA ceasefire created an opportunity for Sinn Féin to transform lucrative US fundraising opportunities from the cash boxes in the Irish pubs raising money for Irish Northern Aid Committee, or Noraid, in legal terms the IRA's US agent, to dinners in upmarket hotels for Friends of Sinn Féin. "With that there was also a recognition that if you are going to pursue that route [the political route], you need to alter your fundraising. It could no longer be just some very well-meaning people passing the hat in a Bronx bar," said Mr Cullen. "So what we recognised was that there has to be a new fundraising campaign that would be completely transparent, that would reach a much broader audience than some construction workers in that Bronx bar, and not to demean that at any time."
Noraid, which began sending money back to republicans and the dependants of IRA political prisoners shortly after the start of the Troubles, raised almost $3.6 million over a 19-year period to 1990, according to its filings with the US department of justice.
The biggest fundraising periods for Noraid were during the most violent years of the Troubles – $312,700 raised in 1972 after the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry; $250,510 in 1981 at the time of the H-Block hunger strikes; and $243,963 in 1988 and early 1989 after the March 1988 killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar that sparked one of the darkest periods in Northern Ireland.
Another violent event stopped Friends of Sinn Féin’s fundraising for a time. The ending of the ceasefire with the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in 1996 led the group to suspend fundraising activities abruptly and the organisation talking to the US department of justice about the situation in Northern Ireland and giving assurances about Friends of Sinn Féin’s intentions and purpose. Two men, Inan Bashir and John Jeffries, who were working in a small newsagent’s shop, died when the IRA exploded a 500kg bomb. Thirty-nine people were also injured, which led to private warnings from top financiers that their place in the City of London would be jeopardised if bombings continued.
“When we had a bump on the road, like Canary Wharf, we were on the phone to them immediately,” said Mr Cullen.
Since then, the party has developed a strong grassroots organisation in the US as a result of years of fundraising, stealing a march over the establishment Irish parties. "Nobody has come close," said prominent Irish-American lawyer Brian O'Dwyer. "Sinn Féin has a political organisation that is unparalleled. Their political apparatus is better than anything I have seen on either side of the Atlantic." He noted the party's advanced use of social media to deliver the party's message and referred to a 2014 trip by US congressman John Lewis to Northern Ireland where within minutes of a meeting with Gerry Adams a photograph of the two politicians appeared on the party's official website with details of the meeting.
“They have tremendous discipline for getting their message across and tremendous use of technology – better than the Democrats,” said Mr O’Dwyer.
For long periods, Irish-Americans felt a sense of antipathy from Irish governments towards their community because of their support of the Irish republican movement during the 1970s and 1980s, he said.
“Historically, the Irish government up until recently had been an enemy of Irish- America,” he said, noting how senior members of Irish-American community who supported Sinn Féin never set foot in the Irish consulate in New York for years. That started to change when the Clinton administration dealt with Irish-America in the early stages of the Northern Irish peace process. Mr O’Dwyer said the Irish-American community in New York has since embraced Mr Adams and Sinn Féin because the peace process was seen as the first time that Irish-America had an influence on American foreign policy in pushing for Mr Adams to receive that all-important visa to visit the US in 1994. The support of prominent Irish-Americans was seen as being crucial to sowing the seeds of peace.
“People like myself are enormously proud of what we have done and Gerry Adams is a symbol of that,” said Mr O’Dwyer.
In addition to regular contributions from generations of descendants of Irish emigrants, according to Mr Cullen Friends of Sinn Féin has seen a trend of growing support from recently arrived emigrants, particularly young middle-class people, who have leaned towards Sinn Féin more so than they would have at home because of their unhappiness at having to emigrate and their frustration with the policies of economic austerity.
“Some of these people that I have spoken to would not be Sinn Féin-inclined but they are angry over the disenfranchisement,” he said.
He sees Friends of Sinn Féin being active in the US in marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising next year, a time which no doubt will create more fundraising opportunities for the political party.
“We are definitely going to give voice recognising the sacrifices of the men and women who lost everything in the Rising because the benefits that we have today are their sacrifices so we will make sure that they are acknowledged and remembered,” he said.
Additional reporting: Erin McGuire, Ciarán D’Arcy and Zara Zhuang