Righteously right in Irish America

Posted By: May 22, 2011

Fr Seán McManus with Bill Clinton on his campaign trail in 1992

Righteously right in Irish America
Richard English

NORTHERN IRELAND : My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland By Seán McManus The Collins Press, 280pp. €14.99

A 27-YEAR-OLD Irish republican, deeply opposed to British rule in the North, takes part in a violent campaign against the Northern Irish police. There is little support among the nationalist population for such violence, but a small band committedly maintains the attacks and occasionally manages to kill police officers as it does so. Then one night the 27-year-old himself is killed, as the gelignite bomb that he is transporting prematurely explodes.

It is July 1958, and the dead IRA man is Patrick McManus. His death was an understandably terrible event for his brother Seán, Redemptorist priest, long-time campaigner on Northern Ireland and author of this spirited book. The discovery that his brother had died “remains to this day my most vivid, traumatic moment”.

Fr Seán McManus himself remained proud of his brother, “the quintessential Irish patriot”, and his own politics have leaned very much towards the republican, as is evident from his analysis of Northern Ireland: “This artificial state had a twofold purpose: to ensure a continuation of Britain’s foothold on the island of Ireland, and to place the unionists/loyalist/Protestants in a permanent position of supremacy.”

McManus originated in Co Fermanagh. Born in 1944, he was ordained in 1968 and based in the US after 1972. He made clear in the early 1970s his view that Northern Ireland was illegitimate: “I do not, I never have and I never will, recognise the colonial state of British-occupied Ireland.”

He formed the Irish National Caucus (INC) in February 1974 as an Irish-American lobby group, with the aim of providing a strong Irish presence in political Washington DC. The INC formally adopted non-violent methods, as it aimed to get Congress more involved in Northern Irish affairs from a nationalist angle. Most famously, the INC espoused the MacBride fair-employment principles, a campaign aimed at combating anti-Catholic discrimination in the North.

McManus’s book is a lightly written account of his campaigns, and he emerges as an energetic and skilled lobbyist. But the narrative seemed to me less persuasive for its rather simplistic one-sidedness of emphasis. My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland really focuses on human-rights abuses only as practised by the UK and the unionists. It does not dwell, for example, on the IRA’s abuse of humans and violation of their rights in the Troubles.

So the denial of human rights in the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six are quite rightly highlighted, just as they should be. But McManus’s book offers no reflection on the IRA’s violation of human rights in the bombings themselves. It killed five people in no-warning bombings in Guildford in October 1974, and followed this up the next month with the horrific injustice of killing 21 civilians and injuring many more in Birmingham. Attention in his book to those human-rights abuses would, in my view, have made McManus’s arguments on behalf of Catholic victims in the North much more effective.

McManus’s book also displays no sense of respect for the political rights of unionists, even though nationalist Ireland has (surely rightly) recognised, in the Belfast Agreement and beyond, that such respect forms one necessary part of creating a truly just and balanced new politics in Ireland.

In the end the book implies an unproblematic association of justice with the Irish republican cause, and hints at a straightforward equation of Catholic under-representation in Northern employment simply with discrimination. In both cases, matters are almost certainly more complex. As a result, My American Struggle for Justice in Northern Ireland ends up being less persuasive than it might have been. And it tends to present other Irish people as having been repeatedly wrong during the past 40 years, while McManus himself emerges again and again as having been righteously right. Unionists are (of course) presented as misguided. But so, in many of the pages of this very readable book, are Irish governments, the republican movement, John Hume and the SDLP, the Irish Catholic Church and the Irish Embassy in the US, as well as many individuals within Irish America.