Priest and Jewish congressman personify spirit of St. Patrick

Posted By: March 14, 2018

Echo Opinion. The Irish Echo. March 14-20, 2018

By Barbara Flaherty


            Fr. Sean Mc Manus and the late Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY)

 As we approach the St. Patrick Day period, it’s salutary to remember that non-Irish and non-Catholics played a pivotal role in getting the United States Congress to stand up for Irish justice and peace —especially since a number of Irish Catholic Members of Congress did not distinguish themselves in this regard.

The late great Italian Congressman Mario Biaggi (D-NY) immediately comes to mind. But in this article, I just want to focus on the late and great Jewish-American Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY), and his long, productive work with Fr. Sean McManus, president of the Capitol Hill-based Irish National Caucus.

Fr. McManus has a unique and unsurpassed record of leading the American struggle for justice and peace in Ireland since he came to the United States on October 2, 1978. He was immediately targeted by the British Embassy—and its surrogates, which he outlines in his classic Memoirs: My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland.                        

It was on the anvil of the MacBride Principles that Fr. Mc Manus and the British Embassy would be tested. And as the record shows, the Fermanagh-born priest prevailed, leaving the British Embassy in the dust, despite the British Government, on their own admission, spending millions of dollars to sabotage him. On November 5, 1984, he famously launched the MacBride Principles, spearheading the movement to get legislation passed in many States and cities across the United States. For example, every story in the major newspapers in Ireland, Britain and the United States that publicized the MacBride Principles featured him and his leadership. But— amazingly and to the consternation of so many powerful forces— he also succeeded in getting the MacBride Principles enshrined in United States law. As the late Chairman of the House International Relations Committee (now, again, the Foreign Affairs Committee), Congressman Ben Gilman (R-NY) said, in awe and admiration, on the floor of the U.S. Congress: “Fr. Sean single-handedly brought the Mac Bride Principles to enactment…” And no one knew better than Congressman Gilman about how the Mac Bride Principles became U.S. law.

However, Congressman Gilman was deeply involved in all important Irish issues, and before he retired from the U.S. Congress, he made certain he would place on the historical record his testimony to the work of Fr. Mc Manus:

“As I prepare to retire from Congress, I want to pay tribute to Father Sean Mc Manus, President of the Irish National Caucus. For 30 years as a Member of Congress, I have been honored to work for many good and noble causes around the world. None has given me more pleasure than my work for equality, justice, and peace in Ireland.

 Throughout those 30 years, Father Mc Manus has been constantly by my side — encouraging, guiding and giving invaluable advice from his unsurpassed knowledge of the Irish issue. No one has done more than Father Mc Manus to keep the U.S. Congress on track regarding justice and peace in Ireland. Indeed, I believe historians will record that no one since John Devoy (1842-1928) has done more to organize American pressure for justice in Ireland. (The only difference being that Father Mc Manus – in keeping with his priestly calling –- is committed to nonviolence).

 In the past 30 years, the fingerprints of Father Mc Manus are all over every piece Congressional action on Ireland: from the formation of the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee For Irish Affairs in 1977 (which in turn sparked the formation of the Friends of Ireland in 1981) to Congressional Hearings on Northern Ireland, once banned until I became HIRC Chairman in 1995; from individual human rights cases, like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four to the political assassination –cases like Pat Fincucane and Rose Mary Nelson; from the Hunger Strikes of Bobby Sands and his nine colleagues to the general mistreatment of political prisoners; from individual cases of anti-Catholic discrimination to the full, frontal and triumphal campaign of the Mac Bride Principles; from stopping the sale of U.S. weapons to the RUC to putting  human rights conditions  on U.S. dealings with the Northern Ireland police.

 In a word, Father Mc Manus’s doctrine “the United States must not subsidize anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland” has now become U.S. law and policy. And it is my honor to have given Congressional shape to Father Mc Manus’ dream for his beloved Ireland. (December 2002).”

 So, on this St. Patrick’s Day, let us remember it’s not all about fun and green beer. The real spirit of St. Patrick is about justice and human dignity. As Fr. Mc Manus has told Irish-American since 1972: “It’s a sin to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day if we ignore the fact that Ireland, too, has the right to be One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. … And that —pending the reunification of Ireland— the Beloved Community must be built up in Northern Ireland.

Barbara Flaherty is the Executive Vice President of the Irish National Caucus.