A ceramic portrait of Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands hangs in the upstairs window of Hugh O’Lunney’s bar on West 43rd Street, his wan smile and political legacy looming large over the room in which some of New York’s Irish activists gathered to discuss the Belfast agreement announced in mid-April.
Sitting directly beneath the portrait of her dead brother, Bernadette Sands-McKevitt officially joined the rancorous battle for the hearts and minds of New York’s political potent Irish community. “We don’t want to see peace, we want independence,” she thundered to hearty applause. “That’s the only way there will be peace in Ireland.”
Those sentiments, of course, do not reflect the official messages dispatched from Washington, Dublin and London. But they do offer an insight into fiercely held opposition to the Belfast accords in New York, which has long served as the capital of the Irish Republican movement in exile, a place where Gerry Adams was regarded as a hero when even the Irish themselves regarded him as a terrorist.
Trouble in New York could mean trouble for the Irish peace process, regardless of what voters in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland decide in a referendum on the peace settlement on May 22. New York remains home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hard-liners who could form a base of support for a new paramilitary campaign in Northern Ireland. A supporter of the settlement, Gabriel Megahey, who once was the Irish Republican Army’s top operative in New York and who served prison time for trying to smuggle surface-to-air missiles to Northern Ireland, warned the O’Lunney’s crowd of the huge stakes: “This is the kind of thing that can lead to people shooting people.”
Nevertheless, there are indications are that Sinn Féin’s spin war on behalf of the settlement may be unraveling. The crowd of 100 activists, the foot soldiers of the republican struggle in New York, cheered on Ms. Sands-McKevitt as she excoriated the peace agreement and the Irish-Americans who helped broker the deal. Many in the audience spent the last quarter-century manning picket lines, organizing back-room fund-raisers and, in some cases, attempting to ship weapons to the Irish Republican Army. They say that Mr. Adams, president of Sinn Féin-the political party with ties to the I.R.A.-has abandoned them, preferring quiet tête-à-têtes in the White House to rallies in the working-class Irish bars of the Bronx and Queens. Held in equal contempt are the New York business leaders-led by Mutual of America chairman Bill Flynn and billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney-who escorted Mr. Adams into the corridors of power. They are referred to derisively as “cease-fire soldiers” who wouldn’t dirty their hands with Irish matters during the Troubles but who now play auctioneer to the sale of republican principles.
So they were a ready-made audience for Ms. Sands-McKevitt, a 40-ish mother of three who came to New York to rally opposition to the proposed settlement, which leaves the six counties of Northern Ireland in British hands. The peace negotiations, she said, have “been about getting the I.R.A. stopped, not getting the British out” of Ireland.
It’s a crude and simplistic message, but it is winning support among grass-roots purists like John McDonagh, a 43-year-old Queens native who has emerged as New York’s heckler-in-chief of the Irish peace process. A self-described “diasporado” who has been involved in republican street politics for 20 years, Mr. McDonagh is one of the hosts of a radio program called Radio Free Éireann, heard on Saturday afternoons on WBAI-FM. From that pulpit he bolsters dissidents and relentlessly ridicules Sinn Féin’s recent converts. “I’m just giving people information they won’t receive elsewhere,” Mr. McDonagh said unapologetically. “I’m keeping people informed, in my own way.” Mr. McDonagh’s way earns him widespread enmity. Just hours after the Good Friday deal was announced, he took to the airwaves using the sound effects of a washing machine-the sound of “republicans spinning in their graves,” he explained-and playing songs condemning “Irish traitors.” It was a supremely wounding moment, aiming at Mr. Adams a taunt traditionally targeted toward political sellouts.
Rebels From Afar?
Not everyone appreciated Mr. McDonagh’s criticism, which is often softened by a keen sense of humor. Mr. Megahey called Mr. McDonagh and berated him on the air. Mr. Megahey bitterly charged that Mr. McDonagh and his fellow dissidents had never put their lives on the line. Mr. Megahey, who is emerging as an important supporter of the settlement based on his record of service to the cause, noted that his republican colleagues in Ireland supported the settlement. “It’s mainly among those who haven’t been directly involved that you hear criticisms,” he said. “There will always be a minuscule quantity who will scream from the heavens, but who ever came out of negotiations with everything they wanted?”
After her speech in O’Lunney’s, Ms. Sands-McKevitt settled into a seat in a quiet corner of the bar, just a few tables away from playwright Martin McDonagh, who was celebrating his Broadway hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane . On the table beside her lay a proclamation bearing the seal of New York City, presented to her earlier in the day at City Hall by Council Speaker Peter Vallone. In the boilerplate language of such testimonials, the document saluted a group called the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which Ms. Sands-McKevitt founded and opposes the Belfast settlement. “We couldn’t have written it any better ourselves,” she said.
The New York dissidents have been accused by Sinn Féin apparatchiks of, at best, lacking the intelligence to understand the peace process, or, at worst, of advocating a return to war. It’s a breathtaking charge from people who themselves still carry a faint whiff of gun smoke. For public consumption, Mr. Adams’ supporters in New York downplay the divisions. “It’s an emotional issue, even more so when a member of the Sands family is involved,” conceded Representative Peter King of Long Island, who publicly supported Sinn Féin long before it was fashionable. “It’s not a perfect agreement. You can list hundreds of things that are wrong with it, but there are hundreds of things wrong with life, too.”
Irish republicanism in New York is a world of familiar faces, of people defined as much by whom they oppose as by the policies they favor. Much speculation currently focuses on Martin Galvin, a Bronx attorney and former publicity director of Irish Northern Aid, which raises money for the families of Irish republican prisoners. Once the voice of the hard-line republican movement in the United States, Mr. Galvin has fallen from grace with Sinn Féin and was ousted from Noraid in 1995. He conceded that he helped Ms. Sands-McKevitt during her visit to the United States, but he was tight-lipped about his own view of the settlement. After a long silence, he finally sighed: “I’m doing a lot of soul-searching. I would like someone to prove to me that all of the deep reservations that I have about the agreement are unfounded and that I was wrong, but so far that hasn’t happened.”
Personality clashes and years-old feuds litter New York’s republican community and, Mr. King said, greatly influence the schisms. Other Sinn Féin activists cautiously welcome the debate while standing firm with the leadership. “Nobody is happy about this agreement, and no one is holding it up as a panacea,” said Oistin MacBride, a respected photographer who has seen his father and brother murdered during the conflict. “Blind faith will get us all killed.”
In an argument becoming more personal by the day, Mr. McDonagh has raised the ante with his scathing criticisms of business titans like Mr. Flynn and Mr. Feeney, claiming their only intention is to make a quick buck in a becalmed Ireland. It’s a considerable allegation to level against people whose interests in matters Irish go back decades, but Mr. McDonagh remains defiant. “If the violence starts again, Adams will look over his shoulder and his friends won’t be there. None of them,” he said. (Mr. Flynn did not return a call seeking comment.)
Sinn Féin Spin
As its carefully constructed consensus showed signs of crumbling, Sinn Féin hastily dispatched a delegation to America. The night following the debate at O’Lunney’s, Bairbre de Brún, a member of Sinn Féin’s negotiating team, gathered supporters at O’Neill’s Bar on Third Avenue. It was a comparatively tame affair, the talk limited to advancing on the fronts of social and economic equality, briefly touching on the dissidents and only then to defend Sinn Féin’s decision to expel them from the party. Yet even Ms. de Brún must have noted that the loudest cheer of the night followed one woman’s condemnation of what she called a “scurrilous” newspaper attack on Bernadette Devlin McAliskey just days earlier. The offending article had been prompted by Ms. Devlin McAliskey’s sharp criticisms of Sinn Féin during a speech in the city on April 17.
When one questioner pushed Ms. de Brún on when republicans would “draw the line” in the face of British intransigence, she drew knowing laughter with her reply: “I think you are looking for an answer from another organization, and I can’t give that.” The reference to the I.R.A. was not lost on her audience. But Ms. de Brún need not have looked too far for that answer: Just days earlier, a Sinn Féin official addressed a secret meeting in Queens of Clan na Gael-a mysterious organization long considered vital to the republican network in the United States. According to one source who was present, the official openly spoke on behalf of the I.R.A. He reportedly said that the I.R.A. had a “military veto” over the settlement. Meanwhile, sources say that Clan na Gael groups in Philadelphia and Chicago are prepared to split over the question of accepting a settlement that concedes a British presence in Northern Ireland-anathema to Irish nationalists for centuries.
Ray O’Hanlon, author of a book called The New Irish Americans , believes that New York will continue to offer a refuge to hard-line dissidents as long as there’s a border in Ireland. “New York has always been a focal point for open and occasionally rancorous debate on the subject of Ireland, even when that debate was not possible in Ireland itself,” he said. “Obviously, it has been a source for aid and comfort for Sinn Féin, financial and otherwise, and I’m sure it will be equally so for the dissidents.”
It was against this rising tide of dissension that Owen Smyth, a burly Sinn Féin councilor from Monaghan, elbowed his way to the front of the crowd at O’Lunney’s to face Ms. Sands-McKevitt. Mr. Smyth railed against those he claimed were causing division, adding that he had been imprisoned and survived four assassination attempts but remained committed to Mr. Adams’ leadership.
After a few minutes of bitter counterpunching, Mr. Smyth stalked out, a handful of supporters in tow. But, as with all political movements, the crux lies not in those carried along, but in those left behind. In Mr. Smyth’s case, he left behind the vanguard of the republican movement in New York, people for whom the war has not yet been won. In Belfast or New York.