Magazine article The Spectator

McGuinness Takes Manhattan

Magazine article The Spectator

McGuinness Takes Manhattan

Article excerpt

New York

STOOPED as though hearing a confession, and with his hands folded over his groin like a defender expecting a vicious free kick, Martin McGuinness spoke softly. 'I would like to get back to my job dealing with children,' he said.

Northern Ireland's suspended education minister was speaking on the cloudwreathed 35th floor of the headquarters of Mutual of America, a financial services company on Park Avenue. All around him were the back-slapping hombres of New York's Irish-American elite: politicians, monsignors and bankers, even the odd relic from President Kennedy's administration.

The two weeks since the collapse of Northern Ireland's government had been exhausting, and it showed in McGuinness's dull eyes and the stubbly furze on his face. His emerald lapel pin still gleamed, though, and here in New York he was among friends.

They floated gentle questions at him and spat out the names 'Trimble' and 'Mandelson', like Hindus finding beef chunks in their curry. Both men had preceded McGuinness during the past fortnight on the trek west to explain the situation to Irish-Americans. Neither made much of an impression.

'Last week I had lunch with Mr Mandelson,' said Bill Flynn, the ex-chief executive of Mutual and a good friend of Sinn Fein. 'I asked him, where do we go now in Northern Ireland? He said, "I really don't know. I have no idea."' Introducing McGuinness, he called him 'one of the loveliest men in Northern Ireland'.

Flynn, a swaggering, silvery, corporate beast, is typical of the kind of mainstream support Sinn Fein has accumulated in America since the 1994 ceasefire. Established Irish-American groups such as the Irish Northern Aid Committee, better known as Noraid, have seen their role dwindle as direct support for Sinn Fein has become acceptable.

Before the IRA ceasefire, the SDLP was by far the preferred nationalist group in America, backed by the Kennedy family; but it never raised much money. After the ceasefire, the Friends of Sinn Fein was set up in Washington, DC, and in no time was attracting much of the nationalist money and establishment support. 'There's no doubt that there are people who give money to us who would never have given money to Noraid,' says Larry Downes, the president of Friends of Sinn Fein. 'Once Gerry Adams got his visa,' says Chris Ward, Noraid's chief spokesman, 'we lost our ability to get people out on to the streets.' The decline in Noraid's influence was perhaps inevitable, since its stated role had always been to raise money for the families of nationalist prisoners. As the numbers of those prisoners dwindled, so too did its raison d'tre.

Before the IRA ceasefire, the image of Republican fund-raising was a rattling can in a poor Bronx bar. Now it is smoked salmon at a $1,000-a-plate dinner for Gerry Adams: free-enterprise fundraising at its most advanced.

The anger among Irish-American Republicans about what has happened in Northern Ireland is intense. 'The British just don't want to fight a war on two fronts, Catholic and Unionist,' says Chris Ward. 'If that means whacking a few Catholic heads together, they don't care.'

'Years of work went down the drain,' growled Flynn about the collapse of Northern Ireland's government. 'Trust went down the drain on the part of the Republican movement. It is very difficult to tell men who have suffered and feel betrayed to decommission. …

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