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Mary Lou McDonald follows in Lincoln’s footsteps at unity summit for Irish American backers

Sinn Féin leader spoke in New York of an Ireland for Shankill Road and Falls Road alike, seeking to update her party’s image in the US

A bright, sparkling day in lower Manhattan and if the Great Hall at Cooper Union, a cavernous basement in a building that stands as a gorgeous monument to New York’s 19th-century rise, has not seen sunlight in its 150 years, it has witnessed plenty of dazzling moments of imperishable oratorial light. On Friday lunchtime, a crowd snaked around the brown-brick building in anticipation of witnessing the latest of those performances. The address by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald formed the centrepiece of the Irish Unity Summit, a daylong event organised by a collaboration of Irish-American groups.

It was an inspired choice of venue. Famously, Abraham Lincoln was among the first speakers in a venue that became a natural gathering point for serious discussion and debate among Manhattanites of the day. But the hall has played host to a series of presidents through to Barack Obama and countless orators and agitators.

“I will not compare directly our keynote speaker to Abraham Lincoln and, for the record, while she has been here in New York City, she has not attended any plays,” joked Mark Guilfoyle, the president of Friends of Sinn Féin, in his introduction. But when McDonald took the stage to a standing ovation, it was a previous Irish speaker on the same stage to whom she referred, James Connolly, she said had “described himself as an Irish agitator. Well, I…”

She had to pause at this point to allow for another sustained bout of applause.


“I stand here as an Irish agitator following in Connolly’s footsteps dedicated to the cause of unity, prosperity and Irish nationhood.”

McDonald’s 20-minute speech was true to her style: assured and delivered with warm conviction. In truth, she had them at hello. She told the audience that “seismic generational change is under way in Ireland and the old certainties are collapsing. She quoted Edward Carson: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet. And so was Ulster and so was Ireland.”

She touched on the futility of partition and castigated the British Conservative governments who “never cared for the people of Northern Ireland.” She envisaged a referendum on a united Ireland as achievable by the end of this decade and told the crowd: “The new Ireland we seek belongs every bit to the families of the Shankill as to the Falls.”

It was a strong speech and engaged the crowd – and they continued to file through the arched doorways all afternoon. And in atmosphere, the occasion signalled how far and how fast Sinn Féin is travelling from what it once symbolised to Irish Americans living along the east-coast corridor in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mike Ireland (”Can you spell that one?”) and Eamon Burke travelled with friends down from their home in Springfield, Massachusetts, for the day. Just to hear. They laughed as they recalled a previous conversation with The Irish Times. It was in the early 1990s, in Hartford, and they’d both had a skinful. Gerry Adams was in town.

“It is difficult from an American point of view: we are all about the unionists and the British did this but they [Sinn Féin] are taking it from the point of view: ‘We are representing all of the people,’” Mike Ireland says of the difference between the Sinn Féin of that era and today. “They are saying: ‘We are representing the unionists too.’ Which is why, I believe, they went to the king’s coronation. It is not just Catholic-Protestant. It is Northern Irish.”

Eamon Burke left Galway decades ago but has watched the rise in the polls Sinn Féin has enjoyed on his periodic raids home.

“The work they are doing there to be the voice of the voiceless,” he says when asked what impressed him about them.

“If you are not part of the FFG grouping, a lot of people have been let down. People who may have jobs but they are rotten jobs and if you can pay the mortgage you can barely pay the childcare. The way they have stepped up and represented those people, the voiceless.”

In an odd way, one of the most powerful moments of the afternoon lay in the brief tribute to Rita O’Hare, the Belfast republican woman who became a beloved figure in American Sinn Féin circles in her role as Friends of Sinn Féin leader. O’Hare moved from arrest, in 1972, for the attempted murder of a British army officer and served three years in Limerick on explosives charges. Her prominence within Sinn Féin rankled many unionists but her esteem within the American wing of the party was made clear yesterday.

“Rita was a force of nature. A leader. A patriot who loved Ireland and our people. She was our friend. We loved her dearly and we miss her terribly,” McDonald said.

A montage of photographs – Gerry Adams hirsute and in his halcyon days as leader; Martin McGuinness in front of an airport departures board, bound for Amerikay – was accompanied by a tribute narrated by McDonald. It was a clever invocation and nod to the Sinn Féin of the 1990s and the party that Mary Lou McDonald fronts today, as she acknowledged a rapturous reception and, like many speakers in the fabled hall, promised a better tomorrow.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times