A militant group that is being tied to the worst atrocity in Northern Ireland’s history received an official message of support and encouragement from New York’s City Council just four months ago.
Council Speaker Peter Vallone, currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, presented a proclamation to leaders of a group calling itself the 32 County Sovereignty Committee during a City Hall ceremony on April 24. On hand to receive it was Bernadette Sands-McKevitt, the wife of Michael McKevitt, whom Irish and British officials have identified as leader of the self-styled “Real I.R.A.” That tiny splinter organization has claimed responsibility for the bombing that killed 28 and maimed more than 200 in Omagh, Northern Ireland, on Aug. 15. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland have accused the 32 County Sovereignty Committee of having ties to the bombers.
Another committee leader cited in the Council’s official welcome was Francis Mackey, a former Sinn Fein official who resigned to protest the peace process in Northern Ireland. Mr. Mackey’s teenage son, Shane Mackey, was arrested on Aug. 17 and is among five men being questioned about the bombing.
The City Council proclamation, in its boilerplate prose, praised the committee as an advocate “for peaceful and progressive change in Ireland” and asserted that it was “fostering … democratic debate” in Ireland. The committee was formed late last year explicitly to oppose the peace process in Northern Ireland because it would not result in a united Ireland free of British rule. Nevertheless, the Council formally offered to “extend our hands and lend our ears” to the committee’s members. Mr. Vallone signed the proclamation on behalf of the entire Council, and it was embossed with the city’s official seal.
The bombing has endangered the delicate peace process in Northern Ireland. The 32 County Sovereignty Committee-the title is a reference to Ireland’s 32 counties, six of which remain under British rule-has denied any connection to the bombing. The committee’s leaders have stated repeatedly that it is not a military organization. But Representative Peter King, a Long Island Republican who is an expert in Irish politics and a close ally of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, bluntly called the 32 County Sovereignty Committee “a front for the Real I.R.A.” in an interview with The Observer . Most analysts in Britain and Ireland agree with the Congressman’s assessment.
Mr. Vallone issued a statement to The Observer saying that “throughout my entire career in the Council, we have always supported the goal of a peaceful solution leading to a united Ireland. This is the overriding objective of any action we take in the Council, and the overriding objective of the [32 County Sovereignty] committee.”
Supporters Taking Cover?
Meanwhile, a fledgling, New York-based support network for the 32 County Sovereignty Committee is lowering its profile, at least temporarily, in light of the bombing. Firebrand attorney Martin Galvin, a fixture in New York’s militant Irish circles for nearly 25 years, encouraged a radio audience on Aug. 15 to attend a launch party for the sovereignty committee’s new newspaper, The Sovereign Nation , in a Manhattan bar on Aug. 20. Mr. Galvin’s remarks were delivered several hours after news of the bombing was reported; by Monday, Aug. 17, as the horrifying details poured in amid worldwide condemnation, Mr. Galvin had canceled the party. He told The Observer that the timing would be “inappropriate” given that grieving families would be burying their dead at about the same time.
In addition, Ms. Sands-McKevitt’s advisers in New York reportedly have counseled her to cancel plans for an extensive fund-raising tour in New York and elsewhere next month. But the decision may be taken out of her hands. According to Representative King, it is “highly doubtful” that U.S. authorities would grant her a visa. Those officials were similarly disinclined last April when Ms. Sands-McKevitt wanted to come here to receive the praise of Mr. Vallone and the City Council. Representative King, however, intervened, and she was allowed in.
Ms. Sands-McKevitt and Mr. McKevitt live in the seaside town of Blackrock in the Irish Republic and run a T-shirt shop in nearby Dundalk. Mr. McKevitt was the Irish Republican Army’s quartermaster general-the man who was in charge of the guerrilla organization’s many arms dumps, including its supplies of the plastic explosive Semtex-but resigned in protest over the peace process in October. His wife’s brother, Bobby Sands, was an imprisoned I.R.A. member who achieved political martyrdom when he died on hunger strike in 1981 as a protest against Britain’s refusal to treat jailed paramilitary members as prisoners of war.
Mr. Galvin, who described the bombing as an “immense tragedy,” insisted that he would continue to advocate on behalf of Ms. Sands-McKevitt and her allies, and he vowed that the committee’s newspaper will circulate in New York. Furthermore, Mr. Galvin suggested that American critics adopt a long view of Ireland’s troubles. Mustering the sort of argument he has spent 20 years refining in defense of the I.R.A., he insisted that “people have to not simply react to the immediate situation, but must look at the broader picture. As long as there is British rule in Ireland, there will be Irish-Americans prepared to resist that rule.”
With even a small but fervent core of supporters in New York, the 32 County Sovereignty Committee could pose a danger to the peace process. Among the most vocal supporters of Ms. Sands-McKevitt are the hosts of a popular radio program on WBAI-FM called Radio Free Eireann, which is heard on Saturday afternoons. One of the hosts, Sandy Boyer, said the show would not back down from its support for the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. Mr. Boyer, whom City Comptroller Alan Hevesi recently honored for his work on behalf of human rights in Northern Ireland, said he “supports efforts to get British authority out of Ireland, and we’ll support everyone who tries to do that.”
The bombing in Omagh, however, has set off such a wave of revulsion that Mr. Galvin and his allies may find themselves quite lonely as they attempt to recruit support for the sovereignty committee. Most observers believe that the bombing has further marginalized opponents of the peace process. According to one dissident who asked not to be named, the committee is “going nowhere” in New York. “They have a circle of people who were already committed [before the bombing], but it will be impossible in this climate to pick up anyone new,” the dissident said. “It may even be difficult to hold on to the people they have.”
That would be fine with Representative King, who said that any armed opposition to the peace process is “immoral.”
“When the I.R.A. was operating, they had thousands of supporters, but these people have no support,” he said. “It’s just 50 psychopaths running around with Semtex. People here ought to remember that. The only significant figure in the Irish-American community who has been supporting these people is Martin Galvin.” (“That is simply not the case,” Mr. Galvin replied.)
Representative King said he believes the New York dissidents had been playing with fire with their vocal support for groups that denounced the peace process. “It is,” he said,” a dangerous business.”