State papers: New York mayor’s reflections on NI spark outrage

‘Not particularly well-informed’ Ed Koch lauded ‘good attitude’ of British on peace trip

An attempt to steer outspoken New York mayor Ed Koch away from making controversial statements on Northern Ireland failed abjectly when he visited Ireland in 1988, papers released to the National Archives show.

When he returned home, the New York Times predicted the visit might cost him the mayoral election. The three-term mayor came to Ireland as part of a peace pilgrimage with Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. Before the visit, a senior civil servant warned that Koch had a tendency to speak his mind publicly on whatever topic is raised “whether the issue is familiar or unfamiliar to him”.

He continued: “He is not particularly well-informed on the details of the situation in Northern Ireland but is sympathetic to nationalist concerns. He has however in the past failed to distinguish between the nationalist and the IRA agenda.” The official said he had arranged to brief Koch on the government’s policy before the pilgrimage.

But it appeared that the briefing may have led to an over-correction. At the end of the peace pilgrimage Koch praised the “good attitude” of the British, saying they were no longer an occupying force in Ireland. Warming to his theme, he said British forces were “safeguarding the peace by preventing what, if these people were Jewish, would be called pogroms”.

The remarks caused such outrage among Irish Americans that the New York Times warned that his trip may cost him key support in his bid for a fourth term as mayor. It noted that Irish people represented up to 12 per cent of the New York electorate and 80 per cent of the Irish vote went to Koch.

The mayor quickly rowed back on his comments as soon as he returned home and said he had made an error. He said Britain was in fact an occupying force and should eventually pull out of Ireland. This, in turn, incensed supporters of British policy on Northern Ireland, with Conservative MP Robert Adley saying most Protestants had been in Northern Ireland longer than Americans had been in America. And he called on white people to leave America to the native Americans.

The New York Times report was prophetic in its warnings, as Ed Koch failed in his attempt to secure a fourth term in office.

More alarm bells rang for the diplomatic corps when US congressman Brian Donnelly was preparing to visit Ireland in December 1988.

The Irish American Democrat was a well-known name in Ireland, having lent his name to the Donnelly visa programme which opened the year before his visit. It offered 20,000 visas for Irish people to permanently live and work in the US. He was also chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland group.

Donnelly visit

The Irish Embassy in Washington wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs before Mr Donnelly’s visit to advise that the congressman had expressed “fairly strong views” on the possibility of meeting Sinn Féin representatives while in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin leaders were still seen as political pariahs at that time and Mr Donnelly’s request came the year after the IRA had bombed Enniskillen. A Friends of Ireland colleague who was present at the meeting “strongly discouraged him from doing this because of the credibility it would give to people such as [Gerry] Adams to have a meeting with the chairman of the Friends group”, wrote the diplomat.

Irish emigration to the US was the main focus of the media coverage of Mr Donnelly’s visit in January 1989 and there were no reports of meetings with Sinn Féin.

Diplomats will have been relieved to have avoided the controversy brought by another congressman who visited Northern Ireland the previous year. Joe Kennedy, son of the assassinated senator Robert Kennedy, became embroiled in a clash with a British army patrol at Divis Flats. The politician asked the soldiers why they did not go home. One of the soldiers replied he was from Northern Ireland, while others asked Mr Kennedy why he did not go home. (Files: 2021/1/395, 2021/1/396)

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times