When I first went to America on October 2, 1972, I assumed that there
were two basic constituencies I could appeal to: The left wing of the
Democratic Party (especially the prominent Irish-American members) and
the Social Gospel wing of the Catholic Bishops Conference.
I knew I had my work cut out for me when Tip O’Neill—in response to my
pressurizing—would put his big hand on my shoulder and say with
evident glee, “Now Fr. Sean, how can you expect me to be more
patriotic than Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave or Taoiseach Jack Lynch?”
But as Speaker (1977 – 1987 )Tip’s collusion with the British
Government would go to extraordinary and appalling lengths.
We got the famed Jack Anderson Column – nationally syndicated and
carried in nearly 1, 000 papers – to expose Tip’s collusion three
times within one year, 1977-1978.
(1) “ Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’ Neill, the big beloved boss of the
House, is as Irish as anyone who ever kissed the Blarney stone. But he
quietly squashed a congressional hearing on alleged British outrages
against the Irish…To dig up atrocities, the speaker pleaded, would
only inflame the already emotional issue. It would be an
“inappropriate” time to stir up trouble over Irish rights, he said”.
(“ Irish Politics”. Jack Anderson and Les Whitten. New York Daily
News. October 21, 1977).
(2) “ Under pressure from two foreign governments, President Carter is
betraying a campaign promise to speak out against human rights
violation committed by British authorities in Northern Ireland. He
made the pledge to…[the Irish National Caucus] in Pittsburgh six days
before the 1976 election, in exchange for their endorsement. Shortly
after Carter took office… the Irish National Caucus… supplied the
White House with 10 documented cases of alleged torture perpetrated by
British security forces against suspected IRA members or sympathizers…
A move to air the charges on Capitol Hill is being thwarted by House
Speaker Tip O’Neill at the behest of the Irish government…An aide told
us that the Speaker, a Carter confidant, was told by prominent members
if the Irish government that an investigation would be
counterproductive. In Dublin’s view, the Irish National Caucus is pro-
I.R.A., and a congressional hearing would signal U.S. support of the
terrorist IRA gunmen”. (“White House Policy”. Jack Anderson.
Washington Post, June 17, 1978).
(3) “ Human rights violations, reported to us by a number of reliable
sources, have put Northern Ireland on an unenviable par with some of
the most barbarous regimes of communist commissars or tinhorn Latin
American dictators. The British are trampling on the rights of Irish
citizen in a manner reminiscent of Oliver Cromwell’s iron-fisted rule
more than three centuries ago…An Ad Hoc Committee of 119 members has
been formed in congress. But the committee’s attempts to publicize the
outrages being committed in Northern Ireland, along with the efforts
of the Irish National Caucus, have been blocked by House Speaker Tip
O’ Neill and other congressional leaders who are reluctant to offend
our British ally”. (“Carter Pressured on Northern Ireland”. Jack
Anderson. Detroit Free Press. October 29, 1978).
Congressional Hearings on British violations of human rights were
banned from 1974 to 1995. If that is not collusion, what is? However,
we must not fail to mention here that that Garret FitzGerald has also
proudly claimed credit for the ban on the Congressional Hearings.
How do you think history is going to judge that collusion?
Now, to my second parable: the collusion of the American Catholic
The Office of International Justice and Peace is the department of the
U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that would deal with the Northern
On January 6,1978, I met with that office. Afterwards I said, “ It was
just like being at the British Embassy. The Office of Justice and
Peace has become the ecclesiastical arm of British propaganda”. As if
to prove my point, that Office would release the following letter:“ It
is the Provos who are mainly responsible for the violence in Northern
Ireland and this is recognized by every careful and impartial
observer… after due consultation with the Irish bishops, and in
recognition of the efforts being made by the governments and church
bodies directly concerned, we [the US Catholic Conference] had
concluded that there is no appropriate basis for public intervention
in the problems of Northern Ireland, either by this conference, or any
branch of the United States government…" (October 17, 1979).
Do you think for a moment the Office of Justice and Peace would have
made such a statement without checking with the Irish Embassy, and
probably with the British Embassy too? Although Irish diplomats may
deny it, I regard that statement as the clearest, most accurate
expression of the policy of the Dublin governments of that time :there
no basis for United States intervention.
In August 1979 the Irish National Caucus led a successful campaign to
have a ban put on the sale of U.S. weapons to the RUC. Well, later on,
in January 1981, Archbishop Hickey of Washington and Bishop Thomas
Kelly, Secretary General of the US Catholic Conference, visited The
White House to urge President Reagan to continue the ban on military
aid to El Salvador.
I wrote to them, urging them to also urge President Reagan to continue
the ban on the sale of US weapons to the RUC.
Archbishop Hickey responded to me saying, "… Bishop Kelly and I will
be in touch with our counterparts in Northern Ireland to seek their
advice in this vexing question. Our intervention will depend on their
response". And Bishop Kelly replied "… We have known of your position
[on the RUC] for some time… In the case of El Salvador, we have been
encouraged to take what action we have taken by the local hierarchy.
We have not, at this time, received such encouragement from the Irish
hierarchy on the subject you have brought to our attention…” (Hickey’s
letter, February 6, 1981; Kelly’s letter, January 29, 1981).
How do you think history will judge that ecclesiastical collusion?
The thing that has made the biggest personal impression on me
regarding my work with the U.S. Congress is that – at least in the
early years -- those who helped me most were not Irish and often not
Catholic. They were Jewish-Americans, Italian-Americans and African-
Congressman Mario Biaggi ( D-NY) is the great Italian example. And
Congressman Don Payne( R-NJ) is the prime African-American example
Many Irish-American Members of Congress were blackmailed into silence
by the London and Dublin governments! “Thou shall not condemn the
Brits, lest you be seen as helping the IRA.”
Here is a simple statement of fact. Big name Irish-Americans did not
lead the charge in pressurizing the British government on injustice in
• Not on the torture of political prisoners
• Not on the shoot-to-kill policy
• Not on anti-Catholic discrimination
• Not on the Birmingham Six or Guilford Four
• Not on the State assassination of Pat Finucane
Indeed, big name Irish-American politicians tried to block our efforts
on these campaigns and tried to sabotage the Mac Bride Principles.
That is a simple statement of fact. The compliant media never
challenged those in Ireland—North and South—who advised those American
politicians to oppose our non-violent campaigns.
And yet, despite this huge opposition, we prevailed. Once the House of
Representatives was no longer controlled by Irish-Catholic Speakers we
got our Hearings and we got the Mac Bride Principles passed, not only
into State law, but also U.S. law. It took a Protestant Speaker, the
conservative Newt Gingrich, to lift the ban on Hearings; and it took a
Jewish-American -- the great Congressman Ben Gilman as Chairman of
the House International Relations Committee -- to schedule many
Hearings. And it took a good Baptist from The Bible Belt, Bill
Clinton, to end the immoral policy of, “ hands off Northern Ireland
lest we offend jolly old England”.
Here is another thing about my American struggle: I was never
supported by big money. No big foundations helped us. No famous
Irish -American rich people helped us significantly. My support came
from the ordinary working class people. That makes me feel good
because with big money comes big strings. And I had no big political
or ecclesiastical strings to hold me down.
God bless America, and God save Ireland.