Living in America, Ending Injustice in Ireland

Posted By: April 19, 2014

Book Review: My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland
Joe Martin. Real Change Newspaper.Oct 26, 2011, Vol: 18, No: 41

In 1963 South African politician Belthazar Johannes Vorster looked longingly at Northern Ireland’s vicious Special Powers Act, a draconian law aimed at the Catholic minority. Vorster, who would become president of South Africa’s cruel, racially stratified society, said he would gladly forego new Apartheid legislation “for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.” That statement should give anyone with a scintilla of political savvy an idea of the injustice and discrimination that was a quotidian reality for Catholics in the north of Ireland.

The Orange Order—a right-wing Protestant and virulently anti-Catholic organization reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan—was a pervasive presence throughout Ireland’s north. For Catholics, decent jobs and housing were hard to come by. Inequities built into this tiny portion of the British Empire were enforced by an all-Protestant sectarian police force known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The RUC was reinforced by a state-sanctioned armed paramilitary known as the B-Specials. British officials in London were hardly concerned about this insult to democracy. Even most officials in the Irish Republic were willing to ignore the atrocious situation in the north. It was only a matter of time before Northern Ireland’s order maintained by guns and bigotry would explode.

Father Sean McManus was born in that oppressive place into a poor farming family: “No machinery of any kind. All farm work was done by shovel, spade, pitchfork and grape.” The family had a strong Irish Republican tradition honed by generations of political and sometimes armed resistance to British rule.

The Irish Republic came into being only after a hard fought guerilla war in which the Irish Republican Army fought Britain to a standstill. The Republic covers most of the island to the south and west.

Hardcore Irish Republicans never accepted the division of the land into two states and found themselves unwelcome in both the north and south. The IRA was banned in both countries. Sean McManus’s brother—to whom his compelling memoir is dedicated—died an IRA soldier. As for McManus himself, his politics and perspective on the means of progressive change have been influenced profoundly by the legacy of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi: “Unless you resist, you are not practicing non-violence. If you close your eyes to injustice and violence—as so many Churchmen do—you are not being non-violent: you are being cowardly, lazy and indifferent to human suffering. Instead of ‘staying out of politics’ you are being complicit in the worst politics of all—political collaboration in oppression and injustice.”

The north of Ireland inevitably erupted into open strife. McManus became a vocal critic of Britain’s hand in the ongoing turmoil. Britain’s prime role in maintaining an intolerable state of affairs is often camouflaged by the misleading presentation of the Irish Troubles as only a matter of antagonism between Catholics and Protestants. McManus averred: “I believe the fundamental violence in Ireland is institutionalized by the British government with its army, its enforced unemployment, its sectarianism and its discrimination.”

McManus is a Catholic priest in the Redemptorist Order. His outspoken protestations against British oppression were not appreciated by his English superior. To silence him, McManus was shipped off to the United States. But many fellow priests here were quite sympathetic to his concerns. McManus would eventually be allowed to work for justice for Ireland on a full-time basis through his organization the Irish National Caucus. Intrepid and indefatigable, he has become an expert in working within the system and enlisting elected officials at all levels of government to ponder the Irish situation and to take conscientious action. Many elected American officials of all ethnic backgrounds were convinced by McManus of the urgency and legitimacy of the issue and became supporters of his unceasing efforts. His crowning achievement came when after a laborious campaign the MacBride Principles were signed into law by President Clinton.

The MacBride Principles are named after Nobel Prize winner Sean MacBride, who was a founding member of Amnesty International. The focus of the principles is to ensure that all American companies doing business in Northern Ireland not condone or contribute to any kind of discrimination in employment practices.

On more than one occasion McManus has engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience. He was arrested and jailed for protesting Apartheid. With three others he poured blood on the premises of the British embassy in Washington, D.C. The late homeless advocate Mitch Snyder actually donated a pint of his own blood to McManus for that action. Perhaps his most outrageous act of civil disobedience came on one night in 1974 when he interrupted ABC’s evening news. As newscaster Howard K. Smith was speaking to millions of American viewers, McManus stepped suddenly in front of the camera and stated: “Will someone please help? The British are torturing political prisoners in Northern Ireland.” The cameras were immediately shut down. ABC was not amused but refused to press charges.

A spiritual and magnanimous man, McManus is undeniably a brilliant tactician. His fine book chronicles a long and vibrant journey of an astute, intelligent and politically committed mind in action.