A small group of New Yorkers are congratulating themselves on helping to make history this month. Unfortunately for them, hardly anyone else in the city noticed.
An independent body confirmed last week that the armed struggle of the Irish Republican Army was at an end, officially putting a cap on a conflict that began in the late 1960’s and caused well over 3,000 deaths among a population roughly the same size as Manhattan’s.
The I.R.A., the Independent Monitoring Commission stated, “is now firmly set on a political strategy.”
The role of the New York and American Irish may ultimately amount to no more than a footnote in the remarkable story of how peace broke out on one of the 20th century’s most intractable battlegrounds.
But that will hardly do it justice.
“The part played by Irish America cannot be exaggerated,” said Conor O’Clery, who was Washington correspondent of the Irish Times during the critical early phase of the peace process and who later wrote a book, Daring Diplomacy, about its American dimension.
“It was Irish America that got the White House involved. They came together to form a bridge to people in Northern Ireland who were untouchable at that time.”
One of the first signs of change came in New York in April 1992. In what Congressman Joseph Crowley told The Observer was a “critical moment,” then-candidate Bill Clinton promised an Irish-American forum that, if elected President, he would appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland and issue a visa for Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to come to the U.S.
After Mr. Clinton reached the White House, the Irish-American lobby provided a combination of reassurance, pressure and political cover to all sides.
According to one veteran of New York politics who asked to remain anonymous, citing confidentiality guarantees he had given, there were effectively two Irish-American “camps” at the time. The groupings were not rivals, and their interests often intersected, but each brought different things to the table.
One was largely composed of New York politicians, including Mr. Crowley; his mentor, the late Thomas Manton; and Representatives Peter King and Jim Walsh.
The other was dominated by figures from the Irish-American business world, among them Bill Flynn, then chairman of Mutual of America; Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper; and reclusive billionaire Charles (Chuck) Feeney.
The Clinton administration finally issued a visa to Mr. Adams in February 1994, in large part because of assurances from Irish-Americans that he was sincere in his professed desire for peace.
The decision infuriated the British, but it also gave the Sinn Fein leader increased traction with hard-liners at home. The I.R.A. declared its historic ceasefire six months later.
Almost four years would pass before the high-water mark of the Good Friday Accord. Progress has been slow since then, and Irish America’s influence has waned.
“It surprises us that it has taken so long,” Bill Flynn said.
While acknowledging some frustrations, Niall O’Dowd said that many Irish-American activists felt vindicated by recent events—especially since, when the process began, they were excoriated for allegedly lending legitimacy to terrorists.
“There is a certain sense of satisfaction that their take was correct—that the situation had to be internationalized, that America had to get involved, that you had to deal with the I.R.A.,” Mr. O’Dowd said.
Some big issues remain. Vital talks are to take place this week in Scotland, aimed at restoring a power-sharing government. And a deal is by no means certain. The hard-line Protestant party led by the Reverend Ian Paisley is now the biggest in Northern Ireland. Though he has shown some signs of moderation recently, Mr. Paisley remains obstinate in many ways.
Even if a final settlement is not reached now, however, virtually no one believes the overall trajectory of the peace process will be reversed.
That, in turn, has left many Irish-Americans searching for a new role. As is often the case in politics, their crowning triumph has eroded their raison d’être.
Some are focusing their energies on campaigning for immigration reform in the U.S. Others talk of increasing economic cooperation between America and a booming Ireland. But it all has a slightly anticlimactic feel.
Referring to the enmities between Ireland and Britain, Mr. Crowley said: “There has been a maturation of both sides, and on this side of the Atlantic too. The romantic sense people had has become much more realistic.”
But, asked about the future, Mr. Crowley did not wholly abandon his own romanticism. After talking without much excitement about Ireland’s role as a gateway to Europe, he paused.
“There’s still the question of a united Ireland,” he said quietly. “That’s something still to hope for.”
Old habits, it seems, die hard.