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Irish America breathes sigh of relief over arms

(Ray O'Hanlon, Irish News)

Given that not a few of the weapons dumped by the IRA were unofficial American exports there is a palpable air of relief doing the rounds of Irish-America this week.

Contrary to a view that has prevailed in some corners down the years, Irish-America – that part of it that took an abiding interest in the Troubles – was not so much inclined to actively support the IRA's armed campaign as it was to try to understand it.

Even so, and as a result, Irish-Americans were not infrequently pilloried en masse for being overly simple-minded, for not properly appreciating the true nature of the conflict, or at least its many nuances.

Various British diplomats and politicians made an art form of talking down to a segment of American society that was guilty, at a minimum, of indulging itself in an impossibly romantic view of an Ireland that did not and could not exist.

The truth was that while the bar room stereotype, singing rebel songs and going all misty-eyed over the boys in the IRA, was not entirely a figment of the imagination, this was never the strand of Irish-America that was going to eventually, and inevitably, force changes 3,000 miles to the east of Boston and New York.

Yes, the beer-soaked patriot roaring on the Provos was convenient fodder for the less scrupulous Fleet Street tabloids.

But the accusation that Irish-Americans were overly simplistic and romantic never managed to overcome the view, held by most of those same Irish-Americans, that successive British governments were themselves guilty of the former, if not entirely the latter, when it came to explaining a conflict that seemed to have more than a few parallels with America's own revolution.

The view that the problems in Northern Ireland were simply security-related, a black and white struggle between the forces of a civil society and faceless terrorism, was hammered home time and again by representatives of the British government in the editorial offices of leading US media outlets.

The tactic worked to a considerable degree, in part because there was a natural sympathy and admiration for Britain in the higher reaches of the American press.

Accepting the British line was, quite simply, appreciating the larger strategic picture.

Thinking in Irish terms alone was seen by most opinion leaders as thinking small.

This, not surprisingly, was galling to an Irish-America that felt it had reached the highest pinnacles of domestic society only to see the 'Irish question' marginalised and belittled at the loftiest levels of American power and opinion making.

What followed then, was a long struggle that did not rely on force of arms but on sustained argument, of victories won in smaller city and state legislatures on varied human rights issues such as a fair employment.

Irish-America, in due course, won its place at the table by delivering a thousand small cuts to the edifice of a British-ruled Northern Ireland it saw as unjustifiably resistant to the kind of reforms that had turned the American south on its head in the 1960s.

And then, of course, the picture was changed beyond recognition by a politician from a one-time segregationist state who called himself an Irish-American.

Even now it's probably too soon to fully appreciate the impact made by Bill Clinton and his presidency. But to say that Clinton's active participation gave profound change a chance to breathe and live would seem a minimal assessment.

The peace process has been a stage play featuring a cast of everybody.

And perhaps it would have had its moment in the spotlight even without Clinton and his successors. But the plot would have gone nowhere without Washington, the 'deus ex machina' of the last dozen years or so.

That plot is still thick this week. Nobody in active Irish-America expects absolute normality simply because the IRA has dumped arms.

But politics is an easier stew to stir and Irish-America will relish the freedom conveyed by being able to argue for change while free from the shadow of a distant gunman. There will be dissent for sure.

There are those Irish-Americans who believe that the IRA should have continued fighting.

But they are in a minority.

Most are happy to support a process that is ballot box minus Armalite.

And much of this majority's argument will now be directed at advocating the return of devolved government in Belfast, sooner rather than later.

September 30, 2005

This article appeared first in the September 28, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News