Peace process at risk if US turns on Sinn Fein

30 January 2005 By Niall O'Dowd

'We do not need them here.' Such was the editorial judgment of the right-wing New York Sun newspaper concerning Sinn Féin leaders fund-raising or coming to the US for St Patrick's Day. The editorial also called them 'Irish criminals' and called it 'especially grotesque' if Gerry Adams met President Bush.

It was that kind of week for Sinn Féin in the US, rocked by the allegations that the Belfast bank raid was carried out by the IRA and fearful that their access to the US could be curtailed or denied.

Despite the gloomy predictions Sinn Féin succeeded in their primary goal in the US, securing a commitment from the White House that the annual St Patrick's Day party and meetings would go ahead as scheduled - and would include them.

It was a close run thing. North Belfast Assembly member Gerry Kelly who travelled to the US with North American co-ordinator Rita O'Hare, did not get access to Mitchell Reiss, the special envoy to Ireland. It was a clear indication of White House displeasure at the turn of recent events.

Instead they met his deputy, Eric Greene, and two other diplomats in what was described as a tough session, with Greene in particular, very critical over the recent bank robbery and its fallout for Sinn Féin.

Kelly has offered a spirited defence of Sinn Féin in his meetings. He says the IRA statement that the organisation was not responsible was definitive and convincing. He expressed particular outrage at the notion that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness knew of an impending bank raid.

He found much sympathy for the latter view in Irish America. 'Why on earth would Adams and McGuinness have taken such risks for peace if they knew of this event which threatened all they had worked for,' asked Frank Durkan of Americans for a New Irish Agenda and a well-known civil rights lawyer.

Durkan says that the crescendo of criticism of Adams and McGuinness won't help Sinn Féin in the US but that the government in Ireland needed to get a grip if those opposing the peace process were not to get the upper hand.

Greene and others made it clear to Kelly that Sinn Féin's credibility is at stake, not just in Ireland after the Taoiseach's strong attacks, but also in the US where the party has drawn enormous support and funding over the past ten years.

The criticism revived fears that visas for Sinn Féin members and restrictions on fundraising could possibly be in the offing. Any return to such restrictions could have a profound impact on the peace process.

The reason Sinn Féin is worried is clear. Bertie Ahern is the only figure who comes near in stature to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams among Irish American leaders, so when he speaks in such critical terms it has a major impact on the dynamic. Ahern's dedicated work over the years on the peace process and his 'get along manner' have ensured he is a popular figure in Washington and elsewhere.

The Irish government's position in effect, is the touchstone for most Irish American politicians. When Ahern turned his fire on Sinn Féin he created a lot of puzzlement and confusion among Irish American leaders.

Congressman James Walsh, a New York republican and head of the influential Friends of Ireland Group, told reporters that both Ahern and Gerry Adams had enormous integrity and influence and this new standoff between the two men had created a major hurdle that he hoped both parties would get over.

'We hope this too will pass,' Walsh stated, adding that it was urgent that the gap was bridged.

In the past Sinn Féin made its major gains in the US by being proactive rather than reactive.

The decision by the IRA to call their 1994 ceasefire marked a watershed in support for them in the States.

Leading Irish Americans believe it may well be that they need to consider something similar on this occasion to get the support base solid again.

However, it appears that the preferred option, of getting the IRA to disband may prove very difficult.

It is clear that Sinn Féin is still involved in a very broad and deep internal debate about which way to proceed.

Insiders confirm that any disbandment would lead to a number of hard-liners opting out with potentially dire consequences.

That may not be a risk the Republican leadership yet wants to take, despite all the current criticism.

'Make no mistake, a split is still possible,' said one Irish American who wished to remain anonymous.

'Adams and McGuinness will move heaven and earth to avoid that - and they are right.'

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