Ireland’s not-so-silent witness in the United States

Posted By: March 29, 2013

Friday, 1st April, 2011 9:30am
Ireland’s not-so-silent witness in the United States

by Sarah Saunderson

It was the ultimate irony that a Kinawley priest moved to America in the early 1970s to keep him quiet ended up walking the most powerful corridors of the world to see laws passed there as a result of his work.
The Kinawley-born priest Father Sean McManus was sent to the States in 1972 and within years the Irish National Caucus, the lobby group he founded, was based at the heart of the American administration on Washington’s Capitol Hill. His name is synonymous with the fair employment code the MacBride Principles which have become enshrined in American legislation.

His record in getting the US to take notice of what is happening this side of the Atlantic has seen him organise for Congressional Hearings for the both Catholic and Protestant families seeking justice.
Born in 1944, he was one of a family of 12 of Celia and Patrick McManus. It was at 16 that he moved to a Junior Seminary in England to train for the priesthood. “Most people in their life receives that call, not necessarily to the ministry but a call to dedicate one’s life to a cause greater than their own immediate concern,” he said. His move to Shropshire in 1960 came just two years after his 29-year-old brother Patrick, a leading member of the IRA, was killed when a bomb he was transporting exploded prematurely on July 15, 1958.

“Obviously it had a huge effect on the family. Clearly everybody responded differently to it. By itself it would not necessarily explain the call. A lot of people have gotten that call without a traumatic experience. But it certainly meant I had to serve a cause greater than myself. I think that was the essence of a calling. You put your own interest second, third or fourth,” he recalled.

Sean was 14 years old when Patrick died. Tender years for such an experience. “Oh yes. Now when I talk to other folk at home, Protestant and Catholic who have experienced traumatic events in their life, it does not really matter what age they were at. It was still a profound experience. You speak to any victim of the Troubles in Northern Ireland Protestant or Catholic they all tell you that you never really recover, you learn to deal with it and keep on going. You never really recover fully on one level. It always haunts you. Having said that as one who believes in everlasting eternal life, I do not see death as the ultimate disaster. I do not have any great fear or hang-up about death itself,” he said.

It was in England that he trained and worked before going to the United States in 1972. “That explains my perfect English accent,” he laughed. The move across the Atlantic was not entirely of his own volition. “I was removed in a nice combination of Church and State action. I was speaking out about the situation back home,” he said. “That was an absolute taboo in those days. In England you could not do that as an Irish priest. I could have gone into Hyde Park [to Speaker’s Corner] and talked about anything and everything but one thing you could not talk about was the North. That was a long tradition that an Irish priest will not say anything about the Government,” he said.

He got courage to say the unsayable was due to a “commitment to justice”. “I wasn’t concerned about my ecclesiastical career. In my mind I never wanted to be a Bishop or a Cardinal. I was free because I had no shackles,” he said. But looking back 40 years ago, he admits as a young member of a religious order there was a “huge pressure to toe the line and not rock the boat”.

The move to America was “absolutely, exclusively and specifically” to keep him quiet.
“In trying to shut me up they sent me to the one place on the planet where I would never be silent or could be silenced,” he said.

His interest was not so much politics, but “justice and peace”. “Doing justice is an absolute Biblical imperative:
‘This is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God’,” he said quoting Micah 6:8. “I have always based my work on the fundamental premise that justice and peace are Gospel issues. One cannot be truly Catholic or Protestant unless she or he is committed to social justice,” he said.

He is modest about his success in knocking on and getting through the doors of the great and the good in American politics. “It was the song and not the singer; the song being the message,” he said. In his forthcoming book “My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland”, the photo section captures him speaking to a range of influential figures including Bill Clinton.

Two years after he arrived in the States he had set up the lobby group the Irish National Caucus. By 1978, the Caucus had set up its headquarters on Washington’s Capitol Hill.

“Every exile feels a bit guilty in leaving his homeland, especially if it is a very turbulent time. Then he feels strongly committed to do something. I felt a compulsion to do something,” he said.

He was not without his critics. “At one stage every political interest in America and everyone in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, every political party and every group practically opposed me”.

“The US government position was hands off Northern Ireland because it is under the British sphere of influence. The Irish government of those times had no policy,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen. You cannot take on the British government without expecting to be whacked on the head many, many times” he said.

And how he took them on was through the initiation of the MacBride Principles, a fair employment code of conduct for companies doing business in Northern Ireland named after Sean MacBride. The success of his Caucus with the Principles, which became enshrined in US Law, he admits has been his greatest achievement. “The US must not subsidise discrimination and injustice in Northern Ireland. That is what the MacBride Principles are all about,” he said.

“The MacBride campaign really started to come into its own when the British government ceased using the phrase ‘mind your own business’. Even Maggie Thatcher stopped using that. When Americans mind what their own money is doing, they are minding their own business”.
He recalls stormy meetings at companies like Shortts in Belfast. The link between the States and Northern Ireland was the billions of US dollars invested in companies in Northern Ireland. “Their business was coming from America. This was America’s business,” he says.

Doors are still opening for Father McManus. He has facilitated a Congressional Hearing for the Ballymurphy group representing the families of 11 people killed by the British Army in 1971. He has also arranged for Raymond McCord to tell his story. His son, Raymond McCord junior, was murdered by the UVF in 1997. His father has lead a campaign to expose police collusion between the British government and police informers.
He talks about the impact Raymond McCord’s story had in Washington. “I walked into the Chairman’s office Bill Delahunt [Chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight], and said I have been going on and annoying you guys about how Catholics are mistreated by the British government. This morning I am bringing you a Protestant from Belfast who has had much the same experience. That makes a powerful impact on Capitol Hill”.

Raymond McCord’s Relatives for Justice group is sponsoring his book launch in Belfast. “I think he is one of the bravest men I have met in my life. There is not a sectarian bone in his body. That impresses me greatly. We would disagree totally on the Union but on the issues that he and his family have been treated badly and there is a need for justice to be done, he has my 100 per cent support,” he said.

Looking back over his decades of work, he noted: “The people who have helped me most are non Catholic and non Irish. The biggest example of all is Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist from the Bible belt. Go figure. In that there is the important message of religious groups helping each other. When people of different faiths come together to work for justice that is when ecumenism becomes its most meaningful self”.

There was no “grand design” in writing his book. “I always knew that if I didn’t get it down a lot of the stuff would be lost. No-one has done the stuff I have done, whether you believe I have done it well or poorly, nobody has been at it as long as I have and done this work of Capitol Hill. I felt an obligation to get it out there,” he said.

His work he now does with a “lighter heart” than in the past. “Thank God the horrible violence to a great degree has stopped. I hope to God it will never come back,” he said.

The St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington mark the changes. “It is nice to see here on St. Patrick’s Day all the people out from home. There was one time the entire Unionist tradition and all Unionist leaders in effect boycotted America. Now I have met them all. I met Tom Elliott on St. Patrick’s Day. As you would say in Kinawley, he is a fine Protestant man. I had a nice chat with him. There is nobody on the Unionist side I haven’t met. I have always had a friendly relationship with Rev. Ian Paisley,” he said.

His sister is also in America, two other siblings live in Britain and two remain in Fermanagh including his brother, the Lisnaskea solicitor Frank, who was Unity MP for Fermanagh/south Tyrone from 1970 to 1974. Six of the McManus siblings have passed away. “Death has been creeping up on the family over the last few years,” he said.

Due to “brave men and women” like Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, the Clintons, for the first time in years there is a sense of “contentment and hope” about home,
Because of his work, he feels very connected with the place, taking all the daily and weekly local papers.
Indeed the accent he jokes about still sounds very local. “I am still a Kinawley man. I hope, please God, my bones will rest in Kinawley when the time comes,” he said.
Father Sean McManus’ book “My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland” (Collins Press) is to be given its Fermanagh launch on April 14 at Enniskillen Library.

Fr. Sean Mc Manus
Irish National Caucus
P.O. BOX 15128
Capitol Hill
Washington, DC 20003-0849
Tel. 202-544-0568
Fax. 202-488-7537