Reagan and Rosaleen

John Horgan

  • Prince of Spies: Henri Le Caron by J.A. Cole
    Faber, 221 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 571 13233 2

A little over ten years ago I found myself in a gloomy basement in Detroit talking to a small and very confused group of rather elderly men about Irish politics. They were the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the source of their confusion was Bernadette Devlin. Excited by media images of Bernadette on the barricades, hurling abuse (and more) at the ancient enemy, they were pulled up short by the ideological content of her discourse. Was she – they wanted to know – a Communist? Later in the same week, I was scheduled to give another talk on contemporary Irish politics in a small suburb of Boston. The hall was jammed, and suitably garnished with cops and clerics. My lecture was not the only item on the agenda, but it was the finale. It was immediately preceded by ‘Mother Machree’, sung with a passion and a longing that would have seemed de trop even in a Galway tourist pub. By the time I reached the podium, I was almost catatonic with culture-shock.

The audiences on both occasions undoubtedly included descendants of the men who, no less than three times in the previous century, had mounted invasions of Canada in the name of a then non-existent Irish Republic. The intervening period, it seemed, had magnified rather than dimmed their fervour. Henri Le Caron, who successfully spied on this expeditionary force for the English, would have been quite at home in either setting. The phenomenon of the Irish in America, which forms the backdrop to much of J.A. Cole’s fascinating book, is still an important political reality, though it has changed dramatically from the days when those ragged armies charged across the Canadian border in an attempt to seize an entire British dominion and thus force recognition of Irish statehood on the other side of the Atlantic. In the late 19th century, the period about which Cole writes, the threat that they posed to Britain was seen as real enough, and his book conveys very well the turbulence and violence which could be taken for granted in a country which had recently experienced a civil war.

The Irish-Americans concerned were, of course, Catholic. They were not the only Irish-Americans, nor are they today. There are, in fact, three reasonably distinct groups of Irish-Americans. One of them is known as the Scots-Irish, descendants for the most part of Irish Presbyterians and Dissenters who emigrated to the new colony from what is now Northern Ireland to escape the oppression and discrimination of the Established Church in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They are not much heard of nowadays, partly because they have become more assimilated into the fabric of American political and social life, having had a longer period of residence. They also travelled more widely within America – perhaps because they were economically better-off – and did not congregate in the cities, as their Catholic fellow-countrymen tended to do. From time to time, attempts have been made, notably by Northern Ireland politicians, to claim for them the same sort of coherent group-image that Catholic Irish-Americans have traditionally enjoyed. One Northern Ireland politician, Basil Brooke, had the misfortune to be spurned by an American President who found it opportune to be absent from Washington when Brooke arrived. Terence O’Neill, more persistent, actually managed to have his photograph taken with President Johnson, and subsequently used it as a Christmas card. At a time when Northern (and Southern) Irish Catholics were not slow to invoke what they saw as traditional Irish-American links, Northern Unionists, in this counter-offensive, claimed that their tradition had provided as many as 11 US Presidents (including Grant and McKinley) before John F. Kennedy had ever been launched into public life.

There is another group of American-Irish who have been largely forgotten: Catholics whose emigrant trail led them to the American South where, perhaps in the absence of suitable religious and pastoral structures, many of them became Baptists, and fully integrated both socially and politically with their white contemporaries. For the most part, however, the term ‘Irish-American’ is most conveniently used to describe those Catholics who came to America in the great wave of emigration from the 1845 famine onwards, and who settled overwhelmingly in the East Coast cities, built the railroads, and achieved political power. One of them, it is now reasonably certain, was the ancestor of Ronald Reagan. Somewhere in the family’s peregrinations, a change of religion occurred, but that is only a minor inconvenience in an election year. In the past twenty-five years or so, Ireland has received more visits from US Presidents than has the USSR: Mr Reagan’s current expedition fits into a very well-worn groove.

The legendary preoccupation of US Presidents (and of Irish and British governments) with the ‘Irish’ lobby has taken place against the background of a slow but fundamental change in the characteristics of the Irish-American population. The surge of emigration to the United States had already begun to fail by the late 1920s, and tighter US immigration controls played some part in a further diminution in subsequent years. By the late 1950s, Irish emigration to the US had been cut to a trickle. The political clout that they wielded, however, continued to be substantial, and, initially, it was wielded in the major cities. Even as late as the 1960s, Irish county associations flourished in the American urban environment: Boston, New York and San Francisco had separate groupings of this kind for emigrants from each of Ireland’s 32 counties. This formidable presence was backed up both by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (which was a largely church-linked organisation with little or no national impact) and by the various ‘Emerald’ Associations, which provided, within specific occupational groups such as the police and firemen, an important Irish focus.

Such a large and influential presence could not be ignored by American, English or Irish politicians. In the course of one of the Canadian invasions, President Andrew Johnson went so far as to delay apprehending the miscreants for five days, although he could have done it at any time. Assuring O’Neill, the Fenian leader, of his sympathy, he added: ‘If you could not get there in five days, by God, you could never get there; and then, as President, I was compelled to enforce the Neutrality Laws, or be denounced on every side.’ Nevertheless, he later returned to the Fenians the arms which he had seized from them. The eventual abandonment of the idea that Canada could be held to ransom only meant a shift of tactics: the US could still be used to raise money for bombing campaigns in Britain, and even for enterprises as exotic as the first Holland submarine. Irish-America could also be used as an echo-chamber via which the call of Irish nationalism could be suitably magnified, to be heard on the international stage. Devoy, Stephens, Davitt, Parnell and de Valera have all, in their very different ways, played the American card for all that it was worth.

According to Devoy, American money would help to finance ‘a system of warfare characterised by all the rigours of Nihilism’ against Britain. But de Valera, even on his first visit in 1919, was less sanguinary, despite the forebodings of the British government (‘If America goes wrong we are lost,’ Lloyd George wrote to Bonar Law). In this sense, as John Bowman makes clear in his superb book, De Valera and the Ulster Question, now published, with revisions, in paperback,[*] de Valera was the first of the modern Irish politicians to attempt to defuse, or at least contain, the irrepressible urge of Irish-America to go ‘one more round with John Bull’. Devoy, at least, was under no illusions about what de Valera was up to: he called him ‘the half-breed Jew who split the unity of the Irish race’.

Bowman’s chronicle of de Valera’s frequent visits to the US, especially while in opposition (he spent some nine months there in all up to 1927, in the course of three separate visits) makes it clear that his strategy was simultaneously to keep the Irish issue alive enough to embarrass the British Government, and to avoid inflaming it to the point at which the readily-proffered Irish-American dollars would bypass the constitutional politicians and find their way to the IRA. It was, and remains, a difficult balancing act: sometimes, as in 1948 when he was afraid that he was being outflanked on the Republican issue at home, de Valera’s American speeches were more inflammatory, and there were many occasions in the early years when he was careful never to rule out the use of force in principle, even though he opposed it as counter-productive in the given set of circumstances. As late as 1939, he was threatening Chamberlain with the prospect of a US tour to whip up American public opinion on partition, and throughout the war he played the American card with considerable skill, if ultimately without success. ‘For the outside world,’ Maffey, the British Minister in Dublin, warned his superiors in 1945, ‘Dark Rosaleen has a sex appeal, whereas Britannia is regarded as a maiden aunt.’

Even as the British Government maintained its vigilance against the effect of Irish propaganda in the US, the character of the audience to which that propaganda was addressed had begun to change. As early as 1939, the Irish Minister in Washington was reported to believe that the time had passed when it was worthwhile ‘to talk anti-British stuff in America’. After the end of the war, the Foreign Office warned Ulster Unionists against a counter-offensive: ‘emphasis on Ulster particularism would ... awaken sleeping dogs, which we had every reason to hope were not merely somnolent but lethargic.’ A third of the Irish-born Americans and a quarter of the offspring of Irish-born Americans who were recorded in the 1950 US census had died by 1960. Over the same decade the ratio of first-generation Irish-Americans to native-born Irish-Americans had been halved, and the median age of those born in Ireland had reached sixty. By 1972, it was estimated that only 1.5 million Irish-Americans were of either the first or second generation, and of the estimated forty million Irish-Americans in 1980 is is generally thought that more than 92 per cent are third or fourth-generation descendants of the original immigrants.

When the conflagration in Northern Ireland broke out in 1969, Irish-America was, to say the least of it, ill-prepared to respond in an organised or coherent way. There was a political and even a diplomatic vacuum: Irish foreign policy, up to the early Seventies, had concentrated more on the United Nations and the attempt to join the EEC, and political anti-partitionism was in what seemed like permanent decline. The vacuum was filled, initially, by the Catholic Church: Mayor Daley of Chicago is estimated to have directed the best part of a quarter of a million dollars to Cardinal Conway of Armagh in the first hectic month. It was not long, however, before Republican sympathisers in the US realised that fat pickings were available, and they went into action rapidly and with a degree of professionalism that gave them a head start. They had three main objectives: the collection of money, largely through Noraid; the purchase and shipment of weapons; and the acquisition within the United States of a degree of political legitimacy which they could not have hoped to attain in Ireland. In all three areas they achieved notable successes. A wide range of US politicians without any adequate knowledge of the complexities of the Irish situation were skilfully exploited to give public recognition to visiting Irish Republicans and the flow of dollars increased as a result. Noraid was joined in a symbiotic relationship by the Irish-American Caucus, and by a completely unofficial Congressional committee masterminded by Congressman Mario Biaggi, who had no Irish connections himself (and an unsavoury political reputation to boot) but who represented a large American-Irish district in the Bronx.

In 1971-72 an Irish diplomatic counter-offensive got under way, initially as a negative operation. It was based on an analysis of the changing nature of Irish-America and, more specifically, on the assumption that there was no longer such a thing as a nationally-coherent, organised Irish-American community. Even in a city as Irish as Boston, less than half the old ‘county associations’ were still operational by the end of the Seventies: politically, Irish power was moving out of the cities and away from the mayoralties, towards the Federal level – and into both the major political parties. The strategy matched the analysis. It cultivated, for example, the ‘Four Horsemen’ – Governor Carey of New York, Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator Daniel Moynihan – who have lent their considerable political reputations to the attempt to shift attention, and funds, away from the Provisionals and their US sympathisers. This has led, in turn, to the creation of the ‘Friends of Ireland’ group, comprising about half the members of the Senate and about a hundred and twenty members of the House, who act as a valuable sounding board for the Official, as opposed to the Provisional, line. The role of John Hume should not be underestimated: a Catholic Irishman from the North who opposes the Provisionals is, in the context of this particular argument, a powerful visual aid.

Despite the boost given to the Provisionals’ campaign in the US by the hunger-strike, the exercise of containment has been increasingly successful. It has been helped by a number of other factors. There has, for one thing, been a falling-out of sorts between Noraid and the Caucus (mirroring similar splits among the Fenians in the 1880s). Noraid has always made the transmission of funds to Ireland and to the Provisionals there a major priority, while the Caucus has tended to emphasise the creation and funding of pressure groups within the US itself. The flow of money has had to be diverted into meeting the substantial legal costs which Noraid increasingly incurs as a result of having to defend its members in the courts on gun-running charges, or of having to defend itself against charges of failing to meet Justice Department regulations. It is reasonable to assume that – barring another event like the H-block crisis to give them a high profile – this source of Provisional funds will continue to dwindle in importance: certainly the IRA’s increased reliance on a kidnap policy for fund-raising seems to indicate that they are feeling the pinch.

The Irish Government’s policy has, in the meantime, gone onto the offensive. Unlike de Valera in 1920, it no longer tries to make the Irish issue an election issue in the US: they believe that there is no longer such a thing as a homogeneous, deliverable Irish vote, because the American-Irish are now geographically scattered, not concentrated in any one socio-economic group, and split fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Its appeal to the forty million Americans of Irish descent is aimed both at ensuring a continuing flow of US industrial investment and at helping to keep the problem of Northern Ireland (exemplified by the fact that the Provisionals got 43 per cent of the Catholic vote in the last Westminster elections) on the British political agenda.

As far as the first objective goes, there have been notable results. Some 60 per cent of all new US investment in Europe in the past decade has been in Ireland: it is estimated that 10 per cent of all industrial jobs in Ireland now depend on American money (whether this is in itself a good thing is, of course, another day’s work). The same is true of the second objective: when the joint communiqué issued after the Carter-Thatcher meeting in 1979 specifically mentioned Ireland, it represented something of a triumph for Irish diplomacy abroad. And, in Ronald Reagan, they have a born-again Irishman who has made statements about Ireland more frequently than any US President, who has singled out Ireland as the only foreign country in which he urges American industry to invest, and who has (although this may be coincidental) even more Irish-Americans in his Cabinet than had John F. Kennedy. Like Carter, Reagan has been advised to raise the question of Ireland in general, rather than in specific terms: had he succumbed to the temptation to tiptoe into the political quagmire of the New Ireland Forum Report, he would have found more mud sticking to his boots than he could readily have shaken off. Like all too many documents of its kind, the Report is long on solutions, short on strategies.

The Irish-American community from which Reagan has emerged, and which Le Caron infiltrated, had no time for shades of grey, and Mr Cole has admirably documented their passion, their disorganisation, and the amazing courage of the man who single-handedly did more to neutralise them, militarily and politically, than anyone else could have done. He tells a gripping story (albeit a hopelessly footnoted one) which, like John Bowman’s book but from a different perspective, throws many revealing sidelights on modern Irish-America. The political paradox which Le Caron would surely have appreciated more than most is that President Reagan’s foreign policy met with greater – and more vocal – opposition during his visit to Ireland than it has ever encountered among the Irish-Americans in his own country. What he would have made of Garret FitzGerald’s appeal to Irish-America to throw off the legacy of the 1880s is another matter. They haven’t quite thrown it off – yet.

[*] Oxford, 369 pp., £6.95, 6 December 1983, 0 19 822776 0.