It’s party conference time in Ireland and the two governing coalition partners, Fine Gael and Labour, have just ended their national conventions following a period of considerable – and growing – public antipathy to their administration. Both are down in the polls and Labour in particular, the former darling of the economically right-wing but socially left-wing media establishment, is facing the possibility of its worse showing in a general election since the 1920s. The leading Opposition party, Sinn Féin, is due to hold its annual Ard-Fheis this weekend in the Maiden City of Derry (the hometown of Martin McGuinness, the party vice-president and Deputy First Minister in the regional government at Stormot).
Perhaps coincidentally today’s Irish Times carries a major investigation into SF’s fund-raising efforts in the United States, tracing the party’s US donations from 1995 to 2014. Using annual financial records publicly lodged by the Friends of Sinn Féin (FoSF), the party’s New York-based support-group, the IT claims that some €10.7 million euros was collected for its use from a wide cross-section of American and Irish-American society, from West Coast white-collar millionaires to East Coast blue-collar labourers, averaging at €563,000 per annum. However none of this collated information is particularly new or startling. FoSF’s records have been the subject of public and media (and government) scrutiny for decades and the Irish Times investigation has turned up nothing untoward. On the contrary. Furthermore, though the IT obligingly skirts around the issue, none of the money donated in the United States has been spent in Ireland (26 Cos.) or in any Irish national elections. Nor could it be. All of it goes to SF’s global political and diplomatic efforts towards garnering support for the reunification of this island nation, funding Irish cultural societies and festivals overseas, and managing the party in the north-east of the country.
Furthermore the sum of €10.7 million euros collected over two decades from donors in the United States should be contrasted with the €9.28 million euros in electoral expenses claimed by all the political parties in the general election of 2011. The vast majority of that total was accounted for through the spending of the then two big sharks and one minnow of Irish politics: Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour. Relying on contributions from lobbyists, business and media interests, not to mention conservative-minded trade union leaderships, those organisations have rarely looked outside of Ireland for monetary resources – nor needed to.
Nonetheless the overall research makes for very interesting reading and displays unusual initiative on behalf of an Irish newspaper (though I wouldn’t advise holding your breath if you expect to see the establishment parties in Dáil Éireann being subject to the same levels of fiscal scrutiny – or at all). Of the eleven articles published by several reporters in today’s Irish Times investigation one caught my eye, examining in more detail the life of James Cullen, a former United States Army general, lawyer and prominent member of the Friends of Sinn Féin:
“James Cullen first became interested in Northern Ireland and the Troubles when he visited in 1969 during a leave of absence from the US army while the country was embroiled in the Vietnam war.
Born in New York to a Sligo father and Offaly mother, he was drafted into the US army as a private after he completed law school. He was appointed to the judge advocate general’s (JAG) corps, the US military’s justice system, as an army lawyer. He was later promoted to become a brigadier general, a one-star general and, eventually, chief judge of the US army court of criminal appeals.
Travelling around Northern Ireland in 1969 with a fellow US soldier originally from Co Cavan, he saw how local people had been mistreated by the RUC in Coalisland, Co Tyrone. He saw parallels with how African-Americans were treated in Georgia in the American south when he was stationed there as a young soldier around the same time.
During his time in the US army he provided legal representation to the chaplain in the investigation whether there had been a cover-up of the My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by US soldiers in March 1968.
During the 1980s he was asked by the late prominent New York lawyer Paul O’Dwyer, a native of Bohola, Co Mayo, and Mr O’Dwyer’s nephew Frank Durkan to help defend IRA men fight extradition cases in the US. To ease the workload on the late Mr O’Dwyer’s law firm, the lawyers set up the Brehon Law Society in 1976 to take on pro-bono cases. Mr Cullen was the first president of the society.
Mr Cullen was, along with Paul O’Dwyer, asked to help Fianna Fáil raise funds in the US in the late 1980s.
A member of the board of advisers of human rights group, Human Rights First, Mr Cullen was one of a group of retired generals and admirals who spoke out publicly against the administration of president George W Bush on the use of torture and interrogation and who have called for the closure of the Guantánamo prison in a US naval base in Cuba.
Mr Cullen has investigated the 1989 loyalist murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane testifying on the killing before the US Congress. He has also assisted in the inquiry into the killing of another Northern Irish solicitor, Rosemary Nelson, by loyalists in 1999…”
There is already a feeling abroad today that if the intent of the IT article was to somehow raise questions about Sinn Féin’s “fitness for government” (as its political rivals languish in the polls) it has backfired. And the presence of notable human rights’ advocates like James Cullen amongst SF’s American supporters merely adds to that backfire.