Sinn Féin supporters in New York delighted to see party’s recent rise in polls

Former Noraid director says ‘a nationalism’ forged in wake of Brexit elevated Sinn Féin as a viable contender

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (above on screen) during the RTÉ Prime Time leaders’ debate, shown in the Halfway Line pub in Woodside, Queens in New York earlier this week. Photograph: Lauren Crothers/The Irish Times

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (above on screen) during the RTÉ Prime Time leaders’ debate, shown in the Halfway Line pub in Woodside, Queens in New York earlier this week. Photograph: Lauren Crothers/The Irish Times


For all the years Sinn Féin was considered a party of outcasts back in Ireland, it was often met with a more sympathetic and financially lucrative welcome in the US and New York, in particular.

It’s city where a divisive “England Get Out of Ireland” banner is paraded down Fifth Avenue every year during the St Patrick’s Day Parade – Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald posed with it at last year’s event.

The party’s official US fundraising arm, Friends of Sinn Féin, works to involve people in its efforts towards a united Ireland and has raised millions of euro in the process.

For some Irish-Americans here, the party’s polling performance ahead of Saturday’s election was long overdue.

Dan Sugrue, smoking a cigarette outside Sean Óg’s pub in the Irish enclave of Woodside, Queens, didn’t skip a beat when asked if there’s a political party back in Ireland that he leans toward.

“Sinn Féin, end of story,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who aren’t too fond of Leo [Varadkar],” he said, citing “that stunt he did when he tried to honour the black and tans [a proposed commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police, which was later deferred following objections].”

Mr Sugrue was born in New York but is from Donegal and Kerry stock, and owns a house in Donegal with his brothers. He said he’s always kept a close eye on the political situation in Ireland, and believes Sinn Féin’s recent spike in the polls is attributable to the failure of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to prosecute those responsible for the collapse of the banking and property sectors a decade ago.

“When Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil got in cahoots together and then the economic crash happened and the bankers got off scot free by and large, since they had a coalition government they had to pay a price for it. So of course now alternate parties like Sinn Féin suddenly look like a viable change to it,” he said.

“The Donegal crew more than likely” would be voting for Sinn Féin on Saturday, he said of his family back in Ireland.

At other popular Woodside haunts such as O’Donovan’s or the Halfway Line, which broadcast the last few minutes of Tuesday night’s debate between Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, apathy was a fairly common theme among Irish drinkers, punctuated by several unprintable takes on the parties.

Nearby at the Dugout, at which an IRA flag hangs above the bar, one patron from Co Mayo spoke of his support for Sinn Féin, who “never got a chance” before.

For the years when it was seen by many in Ireland as a political pariah, Sinn Féin could always rely on donors in the US for funding, and endorsements by the likes of former US president Bill Clinton; factors that former Noraid director Martin Galvin described as “instrumental” in keeping the party’s profile alive.

“The profile, the campaigning for Sinn Féin to be able to come to the US for years, that led to a visa for Gerry Adams – all of that work. And just keeping a united Ireland on the agenda; I think that was perfect,” Mr Galvin said.

He said there is “a nationalism” that has been forged in the wake of the Brexit vote and Ireland’s economic and Border issues being considered “an afterthought” in that process that has elevated Sinn Féin as a viable contender for voters.

Richard Lawlor, the national vice chairman of Noraid (Irish Northern Aid Committee), has been with the fundraising organisation for more than 40 years. His most visit to Ireland was in October and Sinn Féin’s recent rise in the polls was a “minor” surprise for him.

“We’ve seen all these amazingly negative press and negative political feelings and obviously most especially in the North but also in the South against Sinn Féin and against that I’ve seen them nevertheless act with tremendous integrity and actually bring forth a new generation of very talented young people ready to assume office and lead Ireland to a much better place,” Mr Lawlor said.

During his last visit to Ireland, Mr Lawlor said Sinn Féin was “demonised” by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for years, along with the media, which he said was “almost an arm of the government.”

Mr Lawlor said Noraid’s activities these days are less on fundraising, which used to be on behalf of political prisoners, and focuses more on “educational and political components.”

“There’s no question we would be close to Sinn Féin, because those are the people we worked with through thick or thin for all these years,” he said. “We’re delighted to see their rise and we believe it was well earned over very difficult odds.”

Friends of Sinn Féin did not respond to a request for comment.