29 December 2005

Officials concerned over support in US for IRA


By Jimmy Burns
Published: December 29 2005 02:00

Support for the IRA in the US was one of the prime concerns of British officials charged with dealing with Northern Ireland affairs in the mid-1970s.

In early 1975, British intelligence helped provide the US Federal Bureau of Investigation with an updated blacklist of suspected IRA members, whose US visa applications were then turned down.

British officials also considered encouraging moderate Irish Catholic politicians to raise funds in the US, as a way of diverting funds away from Irish Republicanism. But within Whitehall it was generally accepted such efforts had limited impact on the steady support the IRA enjoyed among some Irish-Americans, with UK officials estimating up to a third of the organisation's income was being raised in the US.

A Northern Ireland Office official wrote in a memo to a Foreign Office colleague on June 4 1975: "Many American citizens, not particularly well informed (or indeed much concerned) about Northern Ireland, would be similarly bamboozled by the apparent unity of Irish organisations in the US in subscribing to a policy of getting the British out of Northern Ireland."

One of the main concerns of British officials was the extent to which the Irish National Caucus - an informal network of pro-Irish Republican Americans - might extend its influence within the US Congress and the US media.

In Washington, British embassy officials warned that once Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing, had "gained respectability or power" in the South [of Ireland], then the Irish National Caucus "would become an organisation to be taken seriously both on Capitol Hill and in the country at large".

Meanwhile, Whitehall paranoia was stirred by the decision of Pope Paul VI to make a saint of Oliver Plunkett, an Irish Catholic archbishop executed in the 17th century for alleged treason against the British state.

Kenneth Jones, an official with the Foreign Office's western European department, warned in a memo dated April 23 1975 that the planned canonisation was politically a "source of greater embarrassment" to the government than had been the canonisation of 40 Catholic martyrs five years earlier. As supporting evidence, he quoted an Irish Catholic priest who had drawn an analogy between Bishop Plunkett's persecution and the "squalor of British internment procedures" involving IRA suspects.

Desmond Crawley, head of the British delegation to the Vatican, advised that the government should keep a low profile on the Plunkett affair. The canonisation went ahead with the presence of the Pope, and senior Irish government figures. The Vatican publicised the event as an example of ecumenical reconciliation.

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