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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Banished priest who has ear of all America's top politicians

(John Cassidy, Sunday World)

Fr. Sean McManus may have the swagger of John Wayne but he is no high noon gun slinger who shoots his mouth off before he speaks.

For almost four decades the USA has been the home of the Ulster-born priest where he has been a thorn in the side of politicians with Irish blood running through their veins.

After being "transported" out of London 1972, the Catholic bishops sent him to far-flung America where he hitched up his horse in Washington DC.

They thought it was a safe enough place to banish him after he attacked the British Government and its policies in the UK in the early 1970s.

But how wrong the Catholic Bishops were.

For it was the start of a new challenge for Fr McManus who viewed the human rights abuses in Northern Ireland as equal to the discrimination meted out to the blacks in America's deep south.

And it was here in the late 1980s that he got US legislatures to pass the McBride Principles aimed at giving the same rights to nationalists as unionists, turning their workplace into a neutral environment, and ensuring all posts were openly advertised for all to apply.

Some political observers in America say he was light years ahead of his time when he set up the Irish National Caucus to fight for justice and rights for nationalists back home in Northern Ireland.

And so much so that former SDLP leader John Hume, Sinn Féin chief Gerry Adams, and Senator Ted Kennedy from the wealthy Kennedy dynasty wouldn't talk to him.

"I suppose I stole their thunder," chuckled Father Sean this week as the Sunday World chatted to him over a dinner in one of his favourite Thai restaurants just a few blocks from Capitol Hill.

He reflected on the early days he went to Belfast to talk to the leaderships of the UDA and the UVF, events which were scary at the time but now he can afford to raise a smile and even a gentle laugh.

"I remember staying in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast in 1978. The UVF even posted a bodyguard outside my door! Can you imagine that, the UVF protecting a Catholic priest?

"And I remember them paging me over the tannoy system: 'Phone call for Fr McManus, phonecall for Fr Sean McManus please!' It was scary times." He remembers a UVF killer coming to his room, breaking down in tears at what he had done.

But when he left that room, Fr McManus knew the contrition would soon be gone and the man would be back killing again.

"I knew them all in those days. I got to know the UDA leadership of Andy Tyrie, John McMichael and Tommy 'Tucker' Lyttle. I had them in Washington once but Sinn Féin wouldn't come. It was about the time there was a power struggle at the top of Sinn Féin between Gerry Adams and Ruairi O'Bradaigh."

This year's drowning of the shamrock takes place against the backdrop of the Police Ombudsman's report into collusion between RUC Special Branch and the drug-dealing, tout-ridden killing machine of the UVF's 3rd battalion Mount Vernon gang in north Belfast.

To Fr McManus, collusion is nothing new and points to a long history of collusion in the US between the FBI and the white supremist movement of the Ku Klux Klan.

"A 1980 Justice Department report stated that J Edgar Hoover blocked the prosecution of the KKK in 1965, and in 1968 shut down the investigation without filing charges," explained the president of the Irish National Caucus.

"One of the reasons Hoover shut down the investigation was that the FBI had an informant in the KKK who worked directly under Bob Chambliss, the lead bomber in the 1963 attack on the Sixteen Street Baptist Church which killed four young girls aged 11 to 14.

"The informant was called Gary T Rowe and Hoover described him as the best undercover agent 'we've ever seen'".

It is almost a carbon copy of what Nuala O'Loan found when she investigated the murder of Raymond McCord jnr in 1997.

"It all sounds very familiar to what was happening in the 1960s between the FBI and the KKK," says Fr McManus.

As the Northern Ireland parties move towards the March 26 deadline for reaching agreement and forming a new powersharing executive, Fr McManus remains optimistic that his homeland is close to a new dawn.

"I very much hope. It is something I have prayed for and worked hard for on this side of the Atlantic.

"Sadly sectarianism is still rife in Northern Ireland. So my work is not done. I think the Irish National Caucus has still a lot more work to do in combating this sectarianism.

"It is my hope that the PSNI can prove to the Catholic community that it can be trusted, that the bad old days are over, that collusion is gone root and branch.

"And that means the British Govermennt must come clean on collusion, something that has now been made harder by the key role given to MI5 in Northern Ireland and by the gutting of the Public Inquiry Legislation into the murders of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill."

As he sits on the granite stone walls that ring Capitol Hill, Fr McManus bemoans the way the building has been turned into a fortress of security since the 9/11 bomb attacks.

"I use to come here every New Year's eve, rain, hail or snow. There wasn't a person here at all and it was beautiful when the snow had fallen . I was alone with my thoughts. It was so peaceful and I just loved it.

"It has been destroyed. It was one of the most open parts of this country, the seat of democracy that was open to all.

"Now look at it – snipers on the roof, policemen everywhere.

"Isn't ironic that as Northern Ireland moves closer and closer to peace, America is going in the opposite direction?"

March 25, 2006

This article appeared in the March 18, 2007 edition of the Sunday World.