Toward Justice — Damien Walsh Lecture

Posted By: July 22, 2021

Father Sean Mc Manus, President, Irish National Caucus • Belfast, 2 August 2005


When I first went to America on October 2, 1972, it was my hope that I would be able to help inform Americans about the problem in Northern Ireland. Little did I realize that living in America would actually help me to better understand the problem in Northern Ireland. I learned to understand the importance of a written constitution, a Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc., etc. But I learned, too, that a good Constitution doesn’t matter much if the State has a double standard, systematic discrimination, and a racist/sectarian police force.


The Black Freedom Struggle


Thus, it was in studying the Black Freedom Struggle in America that I came to better understand the problem back home in the wee North (and, of course, because I was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, I intuitively understood the oppression of Blacks in America).


I keep telling Irish-Americans that while it may be important to understand the Fenian Rising of 1867 and Easter Rising of 1916 if they really want to understand the problem in Northern Ireland, they must also understand the history of their own country. To understand the wisdom of Blessed Martin Luther King when he said things like:


“Now we must say that this struggle for freedom will not come to an automatic halt, for history reveals to us that once oppressed people rise up against that oppression, there is no stopping short of full freedom.” (MLK in “Love, Law and Civil Disobedience, page 3).

And to understand Frederick Douglas (1818-1895) the former slave and one of the first great African-American leaders when he said in 1857 (the year before the Fenian Brotherhood was launched in America):


“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress; those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing.”

(Martin Luther King, of course, was committed to a nonviolent struggle, whereas Douglas was not so committed).


Some of you may have seen the movie Mississippi Burning with Gene Hackman, about the assassination of the three Civil Rights workers in 1964 — James Chaney, a young African- American from Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two young white Jewish-Americans from New York.


Those young martyrs for The Cause were set up by the police and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. One of the killers, Edgar Ray Killen was just sentenced in June 2005, 41 years after the murder. On January 10, 2005, the Washington Post mentioned that the former Secretary of State for Mississippi had lost the election for governor because back in 1989 he had pressed for an investigation into the assassination. (“Reopened Civil Rights Cases Evoke Painful Past”.)


That would have shocked American readers, but not someone from Kinawley. Would all British and Unionist leaders have won elections had they kept pressing for investigations into State-collusion in the assassinations of Damien Walsh, Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson, and so many others? In Mississippi, as in Northern Ireland, there was a hierarchy of victims.


The Original Securocrat


I want you to reflect on this: In 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed in America, and in 1965 the voting Rights Act was passed. I keep telling Irish-Americans that those two Acts, morally speaking, did for African-Americans what the Good Friday Agreement did for Catholics in NI. Yet at that very same time, the awful J. Edgar Hoover — the original SECUROCRAT — decided to use the full force of the FBI to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Movement. Many Americans today find that fact hard to believe but no Catholic from NI would have difficulty in believing it.


Previous to 1964, J. Edgar Hoover had not bothered too much about Martin Luther King; after all, he didn’t need to …African-Americans were a true minority, voiceless and without power, like the Catholics in the North in the ’60s. When President Johnson left The White House in 1969, the FBI had 3,300 Black informants. By the end of Nixon’s first term (1972), Hoover’s FBI had 7,500 Black informants. Kenneth O’Reilly, who has written a key book on Hoover’s campaign of harassment against African-Americans, says it well: “When the FBI stood against the Black people, so did the government.” (Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black Americans, 1960-1972, page 357, The Free Press, 1989).


The famous journalist, I.F. Stone said in reference to the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, June 12, 1963, “The FBI lives in cordial fraternity with cops that enforce white supremacy.” His assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, although tried twice in the 1960s was not imprisoned till 1994 — 31 years after the murder. Does any of that sound familiar?


One of the three main Senate Office Buildings on Capitol Hill is called the Russell Building in honor of U.S. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, who served in the Senate for almost 40 years, from 1932 to 1971. On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, one of the worst atrocities of the American Civil Rights Movement happened in Birmingham, Alabama. The Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls, aged between eleven to fourteen. In advising the FBI about the bombing, Senator Russell mentioned “the possibility that Negroes might have perpetrated this incident to keep emotions at fever pitch.” (Racial Matters, page 111). Does any of that sound familiar?


By the way, the lead bomber, Bob Chambliss, used to describe himself as 100% percent Irish. He was not imprisoned till 1977 — fourteen years after the murder.


A 1980 Justice Department report states Hoover blocked prosecution of the KKK in 1965, and in 1968 shut down the investigation without filing charges. One of the reasons Hoover shut down the investigation was that the FBI had an informant in the KKK who worked directly under Bob Chambliss. His name was Gary T. Rowe, and Hoover described him as the best undercover agent “we’ve ever seen.” Does any of that sound familiar?


Kenneth O’Reilly says in regard to the FBI record in Birmingham in those days that the FBI could have stopped the anti-Black violence and the assassination of Blacks, “if they had chosen to act on the extraordinary intelligence they held on the collusion between the Ku Klux Klan and the city’s law enforcement community. Aware of the planned violence weeks in advance, the FBI did nothing to stop it and had actually given the Birmingham police details knowing full well that at least one law enforcement officer relayed everything to the Klan.” (Page 86).

Does any of that ring a bell?


Church and State

WHEN I arrived in America, I naively thought that the obvious constituency to lobby would be the Left Wing of the Democratic Party and Catholic Bishops. While I knew the English and Irish Bishops did not have a great record in standing up for Irish justice, I felt there was a chance the American Bishops might show some guts. Furthermore, you see, on November 30, 1971, the World Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome, had issued a very important document “Justice in the World” in which they declared: “Action on behalf of justice is a CONSTITUTIVE DIMENSION OF THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL”.


In August 1979, the Irish National Caucus led a successful campaign to have a ban put on the sale of U.S. weapons to the RUC. Later on, in January 1981, Archbishop Hickey of Washington and Bishop Thomas Kelly, Secretary-General of the US Catholic Conference, met in The White House to urge President Reagan to continue the ban on military aid to El Salvador.

I wrote to them, urging them to also urge President Reagan to continue the ban on the sale of US weapons to the RUC.


On February 6, 1981, Archbishop Hickey responded saying, “Bishop Kelly and I will be in touch with our counterparts in Northern Ireland to seek their advice in this vexing question. Our intervention will depend on their response.”


Bishop Kelly responded on January 29, 1981, and said “We have known of your position [on the RUC] for some time. In the case of El Salvador, we have been encouraged to take what action we have taken by the local hierarchy. We have not, at this time, received such encouragement from the Irish hierarchy on the subject you have brought to our attention.”


I waited and waited to hear back from Cardinal Hickey, about the response from the Irish Bishops but since Cardinal Hickey died last October, I guess I will not be hearing from him. So much for my hope that the American Bishops would do the right thing.


Earlier on we had a number of meetings with the Office of International Justice and Peace, a section of the Department of Social Development and World Peace of the US Catholic Conference. The then Advisor on European Affairs was Edward Doherty, a layman, and a Brit to his fingertips. He was lecturing us on violence and when it was pointed out that on his blazer he had a badge of the American War College, and that that could hardly be described as a nonviolent organization he simply responded it was “a very professional organization.”


Later on, he wrote in 1979: “It is the Provos who are mainly responsible for the violence in Northern Ireland and this is recognized by every careful and impartial observer. After due consultation with the Irish bishops, and in recognition of the efforts being made by the governments and church bodies directly concerned, we [the US Catholic Conference] had concluded that there is no appropriate basis for public intervention in the problems of Northern Ireland, either by this conference, or any branch of the United States government.” (Letter, to Caucus member, dated October 17, 1979, on the official stationery of the United States Catholic Conference).

Do you think for a moment that he would have made such a statement without checking with the Irish Embassy, and probably with the British Embassy?


And that, too, was essentially the position of big-name Irish-American politicians, like Teddy Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Hugh Carey. And it WAS the position of the Dublin Government, no matter what some would now try to tell you.


This was one of the most exasperating aspects of our work in the early years. We had to fight not only the British Embassy, but also the Irish Embassy (especially when Sean Donlon was Ambassador, 1978-1981), the leadership Catholic Church, and big-name Irish-American Catholic politicians.


On October 27, 1976 — just six days before the Presidential election — the Irish National Caucus organized a meeting with Jimmy Carter in Pittsburgh, PA., when he declared  “it is a mistake for our country’s government to stand quiet on the struggle of the Irish for peace for the respect of human rights and for unifying Ireland…”


It is now well known that Garret FitzGerald, who was then Irish Foreign Minister, instead of welcoming Carter’s statement, spent a lot of time forcing Jimmy Carter to back off his commitment. The Boston Globe reported: “Irish embassy officials protested vehemently to Carter aides. Carter, under pressure, agreed to send a telegram of clarification. According to the Irish government, the Carter aides agreed to send the telegram only on condition it not on be released publicly in the United States.” (“Hub priest denies he backs IRA”, Monday Morning, April 18, 1977).


On the following St. Patrick’s Day, 1977, the Four Horsemen — Kennedy, O’Neill, Moynihan, and Carey — issued their first St. Patrick’s Day statement essentially saying the problem in Northern Ireland was the IRA and the second problem was Irish-Americans supporting the IRA. So, we had gotten the new American President Jimmy Carter, a devout Protestant from the Deep South, stating the problem in terms of human rights, and Garret FitzGerald got the Four Horsemen, all good Catholics from the Northeast, stating the problem in terms of terrorism. What’s wrong with that picture?


Since that time, I have been haunted by this thought: What might have happened if FitzGerald had not been so useless on the North? And yet, some elements in the Irish media would still try to pretend that FitzGerald was the real originator of the Irish peace-process.


Now, fast forward from Pittsburgh in 1976 to New York, Sunday, April 12, 1992. Essentially the same type of “usual suspects” that gathered to hear Carter in Pittsburgh now gathered to hear Candidate Bill Clinton make his Irish pledges. I remember turning to Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times and saying, jokingly, “The only one missing is Garret FitzGerald.” I said that because I was deeply conscious that the thing that mattered the most was whether Albert Reynolds would welcome Clinton’s statement or whether he would try to force Clinton to back off, as FitzGerald forced Carter to back off. Reynolds, God bless him, welcomed Clinton’s interest. And, as they say, the rest is history. But one thing is certain. If Albert Reynolds had joined British Prime Minister, John Major, in opposing Clinton’s involvement, President Clinton would have had to back off. Albert Reynolds deserves enormous credit. I shall be eternally grateful to him — and to President Clinton.


Now I am happy to put on record that I believe the Irish Embassy, ever since Albert Reynolds, is doing excellent work on the Irish peace-process. And that truly pleases me, as I really see it as the final ending of the Irish Civil War. (Even though I fear that could change if someone like Michael McDowell ever came to power).



It has been said that Irish-Americans are too far removed to understand the Irish problem. Well, that may be true to some degree. But it is also true that distance can give perspective, whereas sometimes being too close to something can distort perspective. I see — despite the problems — huge and wonderful improvements in the North, and it gives me great joy. And I’m so grateful to the brave men and women in Ireland and Britain who made it possible.


One of Martin Luther King’s favorite quotes was from the Abolitionist preacher, Theodore Parker, who said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.


I believe that arc is bending towards justice in Ireland and that there is no going back.


Now let me conclude by giving you one of my own favorite quotes, from Walter Brueggemann, an American Protestant, and a distinguished Old Testament scholar:


“In Biblical faith, the doing of justice is the primary expectation of God.”

As we enter the post-conflict era, we must rededicate ourselves. We must realize that while there is no peace without justice, there is no justice without peace — and that there is neither justice nor peace without forgiveness.


In his “Message for World Peace Day,” 1977, Pope John Paul urged that, “The deadly cycle of revenge must be replaced by the new-found liberty of forgiveness”. And this is what it means when we say that, ultimately, peace is a gift from God. Because without forgiveness no peace is possible, no matter how good or just the political structures are.


So let us work for justice and pray for peace in Ireland and let us all dedicate ourselves to forgiveness. Thank you.