Posted By: March 29, 2013

April 1, 1996

Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY), Chairman, House International Relations Committee

“The work of the Irish National Caucus has been invaluable to me as a Member of Congress who is deeply dedicated to the cause of peace and freedom in Ireland. Working with the Caucus, the Congressional Ad Hoc Committee on Northern Ireland has been able to explore the issues of human rights in Ireland, discrimination against the minority population in Ireland and the banning of the plastic bullet. The work of the Caucus has been first-rate.”
I don’t think that Irish-Americans are sufficiently aware of the extraordinary revolution that has taken place in the U.S. Congress regarding Irish affairs.
For over 20 years the Irish National Caucus had campaigned for Congressional Hearings on Northern Ireland. But famous Irish-Catholic Speakers of the House–with names like O’Neill and Foley–steadfastly blocked all Hearings. They didn’t want to offend Her Majesty’s Government:

“An ad hoc Irish Committee of 119 members
has been formed in Congress. But the Committee’s
attempts to publicize the outrages being committed
in Northern Ireland, along with the efforts of the
Irish National Caucus, have been blocked by House
Speaker Tip O’Neill and other congressional leaders
who are reluctant to offend our British ally.”
(Jack Anderson, “Carter Pressured on N. Ireland”
Detroit Free Press, Oct. 29, 1978)

When the MacBride Principles were launched in 1984 we had an even more legitimate reason for Hearings because U.S. dollars were subsidizing anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland where Catholics are twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants. But again–and now under Speaker Tom Foley–Hearings or legislative action were blocked. Furthermore, the then-Chairman of House Foreign Affairs (now called International Relations) Committee, Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN) kept telling me there was no interest in the MacBride principles among Members of the Committee.
This was a deeply distressing experience. We knew we had a perfectly valid case for a Hearing yet it was being unfairly and undemocratically blocked in the interest of the English Government (with the connivance of the then Dublin Government).

Yet oddly enough some Irish-Americans thought that when the Republicans seized control of both House and Senate in 1995, the Irish cause would suffer. But not this Fermanagh man. The first thing the Republican take-over meant to me was that our very best ally, Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY), would become Chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
Ireland has never had a more dedicated, consistent, or genuine friend than Ben Gilman.
As far back as July 1979, Congressman Gilman, then a member of both the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade commissioned Rita Mullan, Executive Director of the Irish National Caucus, to conduct an investigation of the hiring practices of U.S. companies doing business in Northern Ireland. This was the first ever American study of those companies and it marked the genesis of the MacBride Principles.
Congressman Gilman has been a champion of every Irish issue: the Birmingham Six, the Guilford Four, the rights of political prisoners etc. etc. and of course, the MacBride Principles. Gilman has been absolutely fearless on the Irish issue, never allowing the State Department or any foreign government to shut him up.
One of the first things Chairman Gilman did early on in the 104th Congress was to hold a Hearing, the first on Northern Ireland since 1972. Then, despite heavy lobbying and pressure, he attached the MacBride Principles to the International Fund for Ireland. The House International Relations Committee, after spirited debate, voted on the issue on May 15, 1995. There are 41 Members of the Committee. Thirty-two voted for MacBride Principles, only 8 voted against. And yet for all those years I had to listen to Lee Hamilton tell me there was no interest in the Committee on MacBride!
The MacBride legislation is part of the Overseas Ireland-Act, H.R. 1561. The legislation has now been passed twice by the House of Representatives. It has also been endorsed by the House and Senate Conference. And the entire Republican Leadership–from Senator Bob Dole to the Republican National Committee to Senator Jesse Helms–are all on record of supporting the MacBride Principles while the State Department opposes these efforts.
What an extraordinary political re-alignment. None of which could have happened without Ben Gilman.

Now for years I have been preaching the message: “Human rights for Ireland is an American issue–not just an Irish-American issue.” And I deeply believe that. Nonetheless, I am still deeply touched when someone who is not Irish stands up for Ireland. And there are many in the Congress who do: African-Americans, Italians, Polish, Jewish, etc.
Congressman Gilman is Jewish-American. Isn’t it extraordinary that it took a Jewish-American to move the Irish agenda to the very top of the U.S. Congress? Isn’t it truly amazing that while some powerful Irish-Americans in Congress were too scared to take a stand, this quiet, unassuming, Jewish-American has emerged as Ireland’s best friend in the U.S. Congress.
Every Irish-American worth his or her salt must stand up and cheer Ben Gilman . He is my Irish hero.
I should end by explaining that the Irish National Caucus is non-partisan: neither Democrat nor Republican. So I do not want readers to think this is a pro-Republican article. It is not. In fact, I’ve personally never voted Republican in my life. But then I’ve never lived in Ben Gilman’s district.
The writer is President of the Capitol Hill-based Irish National Caucus. The Caucus is nonviolent and has no foreign principle.