Sinn Féin has access in Washington that other parties can only dream about

Most Americans see party through prism of Northern Ireland rather than as potential part of Dublin government, although some would be ‘shocked’ at manifesto, US analysts say

Sinn Féin has access in Washington at levels many other political parties across the world could only dream about. However, some US experts maintain that rather than being seen as potentially a key part of the next Irish government, as polls suggest could happen, it is viewed by most Americans solely through the prism of Northern Ireland.

US department of justice records show that in the six months to April, Sinn Féin representatives met President Joe Biden, national security adviser Jake Sullivan as well as a host of senior politicians in the US Congress including former speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democrats Richie Neal and Bill Keating.

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams met former US president Bill Clinton in New York in April.

And in recent weeks Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s First Minister-designate in Northern Ireland, held talks with almost the entire Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, including speaker Kevin McCarthy as well as Senate majority leader and Democrat, Chuck Schumer.


Ironically as the level of engagement with Sinn Féin would appear to be increasing, a former US envoy to Northern Ireland argues the success of the Belfast Agreement in bringing an end to the Troubles has reduced the visibility or saliency of the issue for many Americans.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says: “It has lost its urgency. And to some extent, thank God, you no longer have the violence that characterised the Troubles. But the issue no longer occupies anything like the place or prominence that it did.”

Haass says Sinn Féin becoming part of the Irish government would not be a big issue for a lot of Americans.

“When they think of Sinn Féin as potentially a party of government in the Republic, they’re not thinking about [its] economic policies or anything else. When people hear the phrase Sinn Féin, they’re thinking more about the question of Irish unity or unification.

“Indeed, if people actually read the Sinn Féin manifesto, quite a lot of Americans would be fairly shocked.

“So they don’t see it through the prism of governance of the Republic of Ireland, they tend to view Sinn Féin through the lens of Northern Ireland politics, or potentially one day there being a united Ireland. Most people don’t think of it as a party of normal governance in the Republic. Because that’s never been the way it’s been talked about in the United States.”

Sinn Féin believes the access it currently enjoys is the fruit of the relationships cultivated with US political, civic and labour leaders for more than 30 years. More recent political events have heightened this interest, it suggests.

The party’s North America representative Ciarán Quinn says: “Brexit galvanised Irish Americans and Congress. They recognised the challenge of Brexit to the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. It united a divided Congress. They had leverage; Britain wanted a trade deal with the US.

“The British government’s unilateral approach to legacy [issues] continues to energise and antagonise opinion in the Irish American community and Congress.”

One anecdote, perhaps, signals how far Sinn Féin has come in its dealings on Capitol Hill.

Earlier this month O’Neill’s delegation was waiting in one of the great offices of the US Congress, for a scheduled meeting with McCarthy.

One of Sinn Féin’s complaints that week in Washington was that at the highest level the British government had failed to have a substantive meeting with the party and that it was showing no urgency in trying to secure a restoration of the Northern Executive.

The scheduled time for the meeting with the speaker had slipped. An official came in an apologised for the delay on the part of McCarthy as he was talking to the British prime minister.

As O’Neill waited in the speaker’s office, Rishi Sunak was in the room next door. The Sinn Féin delegation joked among themselves about potentially just walking in to say hello.

Several weeks earlier in the White House, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was the main guest at a St Patrick’s Day reception hosted by Biden. But seated in the front row at the side of the dais for the speeches and music were Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and O’Neill.

Sinn Féin has come a long way from the days when it was considered essentially a pariah in Washington before the IRA ceasefire.

The Republican movement always had support in Irish communities. But one close observer in the US says in the 1970s and 1980s its main interest was in securing money and guns rather than in developing political links.

Things changed after Clinton authorised a visa for Adams to travel to the US in 1994 and the IRA declared a ceasefire later that year.

SDLP leader John Hume had cultivated contacts at the highest levels in Washington in the 1970s and 1980s. Sinn Féin followed the same model.

One long-time Washington observer says the late Rita O’Hare, the party’s representatives to the US, built up friendships with politicians and their staff that formed a foundation for the links that continued over subsequent years.

He says that politicians on Capitol Hill with an interest in Ireland pay close attention to the politics on the island.

He does not think that it is just election success or good opinion polls that drive the willingness of members in Congress to meet Sinn Féin.

The long-time Washington observer told The Irish Times that Sinn Féin plays a very good “ground game” on the Hill, getting to know politicians and their staff and keeping them briefed on its views on events.

Democrat congressman Bill Keating from Massachusetts said he and his staff would be in touch quite often with Sinn Féin, both through the Friends of Ireland group on Capitol Hill and as a member of the House subcommittee on foreign affairs.

Meetings with Sinn Féin and other Irish politicians can cover matters in Ireland, relations with the UK and the EU more generally as well as Ukraine, he said.

In addition to the US Congress, Sinn Féin has also held talks with representatives from a number of state assemblies. It also meets US union leaders under the umbrella of the James Connolly Labor Coalition.

McDonald also met senior executives at multinationals Google and Salesforce in San Francisco last September, leading to speculation that the party wanted to reassure large corporations about their operations under any Sinn Féin government.

The US records only contain details of meetings held in the US and would not include information on any talks held with multinationals that took place in Ireland.

The Irish Times understands that some companies have concerns, for example, about any changes Sinn Féin would make to existing research and development tax credits or special tax breaks for high-earning executives.

But Sinn Féin is not the only organisation pressing Irish causes in the US and sometimes the party can also benefit from the activities of others.

The Irish Government, through its Washington embassy, makes is voice known in the US. Government ministers are also frequent visitors. Sinn Féin does meet Irish diplomats when in the US capital.

There is also the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and, separately, an ad hoc group formed to protect the Belfast Agreement which includes leading Irish Americans and former politicians, diplomats and academics.

The AOH, the oldest and largest Irish-Catholic organisation in the US, is strictly non-political but it can sometimes provide a bridge for Irish politicians to secure top-level access in Washington.

In early June a recently-elected Republican politician from New York, Mike Lawler, organised a meeting between the AOH and his party’s top leadership. The AOH shares common concerns with the Irish Government and Sinn Féin on issues such as the Belfast Agreement and the British plans for dealing with legacy matters from the Troubles.

Lawler facilitated the AOH and the Sinn Féin delegation, which was in Washington at the same time, meeting McCarthy, the majority leader Steve Scalise and Mike McCaul, chair of the House committee on foreign affairs. Former Republican congressman Peter King, a long-time friend of Sinn Féin, was also there.

Sinn Féin has long timelines with senior Democrats such as Pelosi and Schumer – a supporter of Irish unity who last year was honoured by the AOH in the Bronx as “Hibernian of the Year”.

However, the June meetings showed that the new Republican House leadership was equally prepared to meet the party.

Lawler told The Irish Times that with King no longer in Congress he considered it “important to make sure that we have a Republican member from New York who is very engaged on these issues and who has a strong relationship with Northern Ireland and Ireland and really trying to help ensure that we continue the strong relationship that we have had over the last 25 years”.

For him and his constituents, he said, a lot of interest centred around the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the fallout from it and “wanting to make sure the peace that had been secured 25 years ago will continue and that the people in Northern Ireland are being well represented”.