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18 June 2009 Edition

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New York Conference puts Irish unity on the agenda

NEW YORK: Pete Hamill, Brendan O’Leary, Gerry Adams, Terry O’Sullivan and Brian Keenan

NEW YORK: Pete Hamill, Brendan O’Leary, Gerry Adams, Terry O’Sullivan and Brian Keenan


There was a loud buzz of anticipation in the hall as 800 Irish American activists gathered last Saturday afternoon in the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, in New York.
Old friends who had campaigned together over many decades on a range of justice issues, from internment, through political status campaigns, the hunger strikes, collusion, plastic bullets and the MacBride Principles Campaign against discrimination, and many more, came together for a special one day conference organised by Sinn Féin.
There were smiles, laughter, warm handshakes. Some reminiscing could be heard among the older activists but there were many new faces and young people there eager to hear the distinguished panel and make their contribution to the debate on reuniting Ireland.
There were scores of Irish American organisations represented at what was probably the biggest single gathering of Irish American organisations and activists in several decades.
The New York event was organised by Sinn Féin. It was billed as a ‘United Ireland Forum’ with the theme of the conference described as; ‘A Public Conversation to discuss: Unity – Our destination: How do we get there?’
By 12.30 the panel of distinguished guests had taken their seats and the large audience hushed to hear the format of the next three and a half hours of conversation.
Pete Hamill was Fear an Tí. This well known former New York journalist, essayist and novelist spoke of the importance of the conference and of the issue and introduced each of the panellists.
He was joined on stage by Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin President; Brian Keenan, author and broadcaster who was a hostage in Beirut for four and a half years and who is from East Belfast; Dr. Brendan O’Leary, is Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the north, is an advisor to the Kurdistan National Assembly, the UN, EU and others; and Terry O’Sullivan, the General President of the Labourers’ International Union of North America.

New Phase of Activism
Gerry Adams as the host of the Forum opened the proceedings by dedicating his remarks to the memory of four great Irish Americans who had died in recent months and had “kept the faith and who are with us here in spirit: Dave Burke; Mike Doyle; Danny Withers and Billy Briggs”.
The Sinn Féin President reminded his audience of the goal of the meeting, “A Public Conversation to discuss: Unity – Our destination: How do we get there?”. He identified two sub themes:
“Firstly for the people of Ireland – what kind of united Ireland do we need?
“And secondly for the diaspora, particularly here in the USA, the question is not so much how do we get there as how can the USA help the people of Ireland get there? How do you help? How can you be active and effective?
“Because it isn’t a matter of IF we will get a united Ireland – be sure of that my friends. It is a matter of HOW and WHEN.
“For Sinn Féin a united Ireland is more than just about changing the flags. We want a real republic – a national democratic republic – but that is for the people of the island of Ireland to decide, free from outside interference. So, this conference is about what you can do about uniting Ireland. In other words this is the start of a new phase of activism throughout Irish America.
“For hundreds of years we Irish have struggled for independence and freedom from Britain. Our struggle has taken many forms, sometimes armed and violent, sometimes electoral, sometimes peaceful.
“We have fought on all fronts – we have suffered. Others have suffered also. We have persisted; we have made enormous progress and we have prevailed. And always, at the heart of our struggle there has been our fundamental right, our basic human right, to determine our own future.
“And always, working alongside us has been the Irish diaspora, especially here in the USA. And with your support we have made progress. There is an end to armed conflict. The Good Friday Agreement contains a legislative, peaceful and democratic mechanism to set up a new and democratic Ireland.
“I believe that the economic and political dynamics in Ireland today make a united Ireland a realistic and realisable objective in a reasonable period of time.
“But there are still rigid differences, attitudes, opinions, self interests, partitionism, bigotry and sectarianism which have to be overcome. This is a daunting challenge.
“A United Ireland must guarantee liberty and justice for all. It must ensure religious and civil liberty and equal rights and opportunities for all. It must reconcile all sections of our people and heal the hurts between us. It will require thoughtful strategies – huge outreach to our unionist brothers and sisters and a patient process of nation building to unite orange and green.
“But it can be done. We can do it, all of us together. The peace process has given us countless examples of the unthinkable, the unexpected and the unbelievable actually happening.
“Twenty years ago who would have believed me if I had told you there would be cessations, and a Peace Process, and an Agreement, and Ian Paisley or Peter Robinson sitting in government as an equal with Martin McGuinness, and Sinn Féin emerging from an election – as we did last week – as the largest party in the North?’
Gerry Adams reminded his audience that Irish America made a key contribution to the Peace Process and succeeded in pushing the Irish, British and US governments into taking decisions they would otherwise have resisted. He said:
“The decisions that Irish America took then allowed you to reach into the White House; to  reach into 10 Downing Street; to  reach into Unionist Party headquarters and to change the direction of Irish history, to give hope where none had existed and to  save countless lives in the process.
“That’s what you did. Well I believe we can go one better. Irish freedom and the end to British rule in Ireland has been the goal of generations of Irish republicans and of the diaspora.
“I believe this generation can make it real. But to succeed we have to be active. And to remember always that in activism every little bit counts. Every little step forward brings the end of the journey closer.
“There is nothing we cannot do; nothing we can not achieve; if we are determined to make it happen. Sinn Féin is determined. We have appointed Conor Murphy, Minister for Regional Development and Senator Pearse Doherty to jointly head up our United Ireland task Force.
“They have a responsibility to roll a series of events throughout every Irish county and to mainstream their work into every elected forum on the island of Ireland. This is in addition to work here in the USA, Australia, Europe and Britain.
“But let me make it clear that Irish unity is bigger than Sinn Féin. We have no monopoly and we do not want a monopoly on this primary national and international issue. It is the business of everyone who desires peace and justice and freedom and prosperity for the people of Ireland
“So my friends this conference is the beginning of a new phase of struggle. It will be followed by others. I believe it will mobilise and motivate the diaspora in a way never seen before. And that is our purpose today. To begin that process.”
Brendan O’Leary outlined the desirability but in his view not the inevitability of a United Ireland. In his remarks he spelt out the changes in demographics, as well as the options, he believes, are available to securing the consensus necessary to create a viable united Ireland. His clear preference was for a form of federal arrangement as the best way of reassuring unionists.
Professor O’Leary also raised the recent election results in Scotland in which the Scottish National Party had inflicted a serious defeat on the British Labour Party.   
He said: “If the SNP permanently replaces Labour in Scotland as the largest party, then a confrontation with the British conservatives over the first Union lies ahead ... If and when that other union dissolves that may be the moment for launching fully the idea of the federalisation of Ireland.”
Brian Keenan received a warm welcome which became a standing ovation when he drew the audiences attention to his friend, fellow Beirut hostage Terry Anderson who was in the hall. Brian captured the attention of the audience with his very personal and moving account as a protestant growing up in east Belfast. He spoke of the lack of connection between people, of the dangers of sectarianism and of the need to reach out to others beyond the cultural stereotypes. And he recounted his experience of interviewing a Presbyterian Minister who wept for the loss of that radicalism that marked Irish Presbyterianism in the 18th century.
Terry O’Sullivan cut right to the core of what activism must be about and he pledged his support and that of his union to spread the word; use its resources; and exploit its political clout to help advance the argument for a United Ireland.
He identified for activists what activism must mean in this new phase of struggle and this theme was picked up by the almost 40 other speakers who then addressed the meeting, either as representatives of organisations like Irish Northern Aid, the AOH, Clann na Gael, the Irish American Unity Conference and many, many others, or as individuals who wanted to express their opinion.
The conference was also unexpectedly addressed by two senior New York politicians US Senator Schumer and Congressman Elliot Engel who both pledged their support to the campaign.
In summary there was an acceptance that Saturday’s conference was just the beginning and that it was crucial that Irish America talked about Irish unity and kept talking about it as a means of getting it on the political agenda.
Some suggested lobbying politicians; others said that Irish America now had to revitalise bodies like the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Ireland and the Friends of Ireland Committee.
The MacBride Principles Campaign was a constant touchstone for activists who see it as a template for a United Ireland campaign
Consequently many spoke of the need to build alliances and coalitions of organisations, writing to their local newspaper, persuading the universities and colleges to host debates on this theme and bringing forward resolutions to City Councils, State legislatures and Congress, all as a means of building awareness, support and momentum.
Several speakers lambasted those, especially the Irish Government, who are forever saying the time is not right to raise this issue. One contributor got a rousing reception when he said “we don’t need anyone’s permission to raise this issue or push for a united Ireland.”
There was also an understanding, probably assisted by the contributions of Brendan O’Leary and Brian Keenan, of the need to find ways of addressing unionists and their fears. The Brehon Society of Lawyers proposed a series of essays specifically addressing unionism.
At the end of the four hours the hall was alive with participants enthused by the contributions talking excitedly about the next steps for them.
Niall O’Dowd in a column the next day remarked: “Sinn Féin did the Irish American Community a service by hosting this event and laying out the pitfalls as well as the promise.”
In his summing up Gerry Adams expressed his confidence in Irish America. He said: “We cannot afford failure. We cannot falter. We do have the ability to achieve Irish unity.”

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