State files: Frustration over ‘green-tinged’ bias of Americans

The state’s frustration towards ill-informed Americans with “green-tinged blinkers” is laid bare in a stack of declassified papers which have just gone on public view.

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 7:00 am
A pro-IRA mural in Boston (since removed)
A pro-IRA mural in Boston (since removed)

The secret UK diplomatic documents contain detailed discussions of pro-nationalist / republican sentiment among Irish-Americans.

Among the things they reveal is that move to appoint a US envoy to Northern Ireland were driven by Bill Clinton’s desire to win Irish-American votes, and that a US politician wanted to rename the Belfast-to-Dublin road “The Presidents Highway” as part of a funding deal.

The papers are of particular relevance because the UK has just appointed a special Northern Ireland envoy to America, among whose tasks are speculated to be countering nationalist / republican views with unionist ones.

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The papers largely date from 1994, and were declassified a couple of years ago. As of last week, Ulster University placed them online for the general public to read.

One file written by UK official Tony Beeton on May 9, 1994, refers to conversations with Richard E Neal – a prominent Irish-American Democratic congressman.

Mr Neal had said the UK government’s reluctance to negotiate with Sinn Fein was a “stumbling block” to any ceasefire, and complained of the Army’s “excessive buildup in border areas”.

Mr Beeton said: “Congressman Neal is not beyond the pale, although his comments demonstrate clearly the continuing green-tinged blinkers which limit the vision of some Congressional opinion on Northern Ireland.”

Another paper prepared by British official Jonathan Margetts, said the following: “There are said to be around 40 million Americans (there are differing estimates of the actual figure) who claim Irish ancestry, a majority of whom, in varying degrees, are sympathetic to the idea of Irish reunification.

“There is not, however, wide knowledge of the contemporary facts - people tend towards a romanticized, and rather simplistic, view of history which suggests that the problem in Northern Ireland is colonial, stemming from the British presence and ignoring the position and strength of Unionism.

“Most Irish-Americans reject violence, but there is an active minority who support the aims and methods of the IRA, and are vehemently anti-British.”

When it came to Bill Clinton’s plan to appoint a US envoy to Northern Ireland, this is how a top British official recalled a conversation with America’s UK ambassador.

Under the heading “peace envoy,” the file reads: “The Ambassador diplomatically described how the new President had encountered a number of setbacks following his election.

“He had been criticised, rightly or wrongly, for having done u-turns on campaign promises and now needed to salvage something from his pre-election campaign.

“With 40 million Irish Americans, this seemed like a good issue to choose.”

Further highlighting the importance of Irish-American votes, another file sets out a proposal from Democratic congressman Joe Kennedy, who wanted to secure “part US funding of the Dublin / Belfast economic corridor”.

But, he added: “It should be named ‘Presidents Highway’ in recognition of the 14 presidents of Irish stock.”

Still another file says that there was “mounting support to found a Chair of Peace Studies at the University of Ulster” among US politicians, and that it should be named “the Tip O’Neill Chair of Peace Studies,” after another Democratic congressman.

The documents then go on to profile the different lobbying groups at work in the States, including NORAID, which it described as working “closely with Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA”.

“NORAID’s six monthly returns to the Justice Department suggest that it sends about $300,000 back to Ireland each year,” the file says.

“But the actual figure, including funds sent in cash, is probably slightly larger.”

More from this reporter:

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Alistair Bushe