By Gerry Adams (for the Irish Echo)
“Nice to see you two gentlemen again.”
Mike was our friendly conductor on the express train one Friday morning two weeks ago as we traveled from New York to Boston. His family roots are in Dungannon and Pomeroy. He’s a Tyrone man and proud of it.
As he introduced himself he flicked back his coat to reveal a small radio with its aerial wrapped in green, white and orange.
Coming out of the New York Times on the day before after a meeting with its editorial board I was stopped by one of the maintenance staff. He is a native of Blackrock in County Louth.
These two men are just two of the millions of men and women who make up the Irish diaspora in the United States. And there are many millions more scattered across the globe who are proud of their Irish roots and heritage.
It’s the one solitary advantage of being recognized. I meet the Irish everywhere. On trains and planes, in streets and hotels, in New York and London, and Perth and Jerusalem, and Capetown. Every townland and parish the length and breadth of Ireland has a son or daughter in the diaspora.
Many of them were represented at the Friends of Sinn Féin dinner which took place the night before our train to Boston. Over 800 Irish Americans packed into the Sheraton Hotel on 7th avenue to demonstrate their solidarity with the struggle for freedom and unity in Ireland, this through their support for Sinn Féin.
The host dinner committee had done it again. Despite the economic difficulties it was a packed house.
I was reminded of my first frenzied visit to New York which in part brought me to the same hotel. It was February 1994. Bill Flynn had organized a peace conference and the issue of a visa for me was causing headaches for the governments.
The British government was lobbying like mad to have the Clinton administration say no. As far as they were concerned, the North was an internal matter for the “United Kingdom” and everyone was told to butt out.
But Irish America was having none of it and launched its own intense lobbying campaign. As a result, I got a 48 hour visa for New York. One of the key events of that visit was a speaking engagement with hundreds of excited Irish Americans in the Sheraton Hotel. Some of those who organized that event 17 years ago were also involved in planning the Friends of Sinn Féin dinner. So, this 2011 FOSF event was an opportunity for a little nostalgia.
Your man and I arrived in Boston about 11.30 the next morning. It was a cold, crisp Boston morning and the train journey had been very pleasant. I like trains.
We were in Boston all of six hours. From the train station we made our way to the Seaport Hotel where I had to speak at an event organized by the Echo and then off to the airport for the flight to Dublin; a quick turnaround.
The annual Golden Bridges Awards is organized by the Irish Echo. It was the fourth year they had been held in Boston.
It is a really good project, one which is about creating connections between Boston and Derry and the Northwest of Ireland. I was there to be grilled by one of Boston’s best known journalists, Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe. I also was delighted to applaud the honorees, wonderful, active citizens every one. All of them are a fine example and an inspiration to the rest of us.
Among the issues Kevin asked me about was the presidential election and the role of the Irish diaspora. The presidential election was a good result for the Irish democratic project.
Martin McGuinness also succeeded in placing Irish unity on the political agenda. Alongside other issues he also introduced into the debate the fact that Irish citizens living in the North and passport holders within the diaspora are denied the right to vote in presidential elections.
It is our view that they should have that right. The Irish government has said that next year it will hold a constitutional convention. This issue will be on the agenda. The Irish diaspora has to be part of that. You, dear reader, make sure of that!
I told the Golden Bridges audience that the Irish scattered around the world, and especially those in the USA, proved their worth as indispensable supporters of the peace process. They also have a vital contribution to make as we seek to reshape and re-imagine Ireland in the 21st century.
And as the centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising, and of the Proclamation approaches, there is a role for Irish America in commemorating these events.
The Irish in America, the children of the famine, – An Gorta Mór – financed the Rising. The Proclamation is not yet a reality. But it will be.
Ireland is an island in transition, in part because of the peace process, but also because of the economic crisis. There is an opportunity to build a new Ireland, a new Republic, and the diaspora can, and should, play a positive and constructive role.