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The Brooklyn Radio Show for 'Dissident' Irish Republicans

I spoke to host John McDonagh, the Irish-American voice of Republican discontent.

Andrew Coffman Smith

John McDonagh (left) talking to Irish-American activist Michael Patrick MacDonald on Radio Free Eireann (Photo via)

Most of the week, John McDonagh can be found patrolling the streets of New York in his yellow Medallion cab. But every Saturday the nearly 60-year-old activist and comedian takes to WBAI’s Radio Free Éireann, a radio show hosted out of a Brooklyn pub, to cover “the Irish freedom struggle from an Irish Republican point of view”.

McDonagh, a first-generation Irish-American, is among the many Republicans who feel betrayed by Sinn Féin – the political face of the now-defunct Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – for signing up to Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in 1998. “They sold it as, ‘This is a stepping stone to a united Ireland,’” sighed McDonagh. “And they even made promises, which turned out to be lies, that there would be a united Ireland based on this, and all it did was copper-fasten the border.”

He makes a valid point. The peace agreement, which sought an end to “The Troubles”, instead enshrines equality for Catholic nationalists while assuring Protestant unionists that Northern Ireland will remain linked to Britain, as long as that’s what most of its citizens want. This hasn’t gone down well with certain Republican members of the Irish diaspora in America. According to McDonagh, none of them joined Irish Northern Aid (Noraid) and Clan Na Gael – groups that allegedly used to funnel money to the IRA for weapons (Noraid have "categorically" rejected the accusation) – so Sinn Féin could one day “administer British rule” with unionists.

Radio Free Éireann provides a platform to critics of Sinn Féin and the peace process, including individuals from groups that the US government recognises as “foreign terrorist organisations”. That said, it would appear that the only time Radio Free Éireann has been put under any pressure by the US government was after September 11, 2001; the owner of the Kansas company hosting the radio show’s online archives said he received a phone call from a self-identified federal agent who threatened that the company would have its assets seized and be charged with supporting terrorism. Afraid of the consequences, the company stopped hosting the archives.

From its first broadcast in 1981 until the IRA ceasefire of 1994 lifted broadcast bans against Sinn Féin in Ireland and the UK, Radio Free Éireann has served as uncensored outlet for what is now Ireland’s largest party. These days, the programme welcomes those who challenge the spin of Gerry Adams and anyone in his party who McDonagh – and others who share his opinion – would accuse of laying down true Republican ideals to side with British authorities. “We’re highlighting the people who Sinn Féin would call ‘dissidents’, but what we would call Irish Republicans,” said McDonagh. “Surely to God you can’t be a republican and administer British rule – and get paid by the British government.”

John McDonagh standing in front of his cab with Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond (Photo via McDonagh's blog)

One so-called “dissident” who’s guested a number of times is vice president of Republican Sinn Féin, 29-year-old Cáit Trainor. “Radio Free Éireann gives Irish Republicans an opportunity to speak to the Irish diaspora in America, to inform them what is actually happening,” said Trainor, adding that the station is needed to counter the “smooth, polished spin that politicians are pumping into the diaspora throughout the world”.

“As time has moved on from the Good Friday Agreement, Irish-Americans haven’t really seen an awful lot of progress,” she continued. “They’re starting to question and they are starting to reach out to the traditional Republican movement in Ireland.”

McDonagh (right) with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who was IRA Chief of Staff, then President of Sinn Féin between 1970 to 1983, before forming Republican Sinn Féin in 1987

Republican Sinn Féin, which split from Sinn Féin in 1986 and doesn’t contest elections in the north, is listed as a “foreign terrorist organisation” by the US Department of State for being an “alleged alias” of the Continuity IRA. The oldest of the IRA splinter groups, the Continuity IRA shot dead a Catholic police officer responding to a call in 2009. It was the first fatality of a police officer in Northern Ireland since 1998.

Trainor denies any member’s involvement in violence, but says the party gives “voice” to armed struggle against “British occupation”.

One guest to have his voice heard by America’s Irish diaspora was former Provisional IRA prisoner turned academic, Anthony McIntyre. A fierce critic of Sinn Féin, he told me the show “provides a very useful service and has long been a bulwark against censorship”.

Another frequent guest is Londonderry councillor Gary Donnelly, a leading member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. The 32 CSM is a designated “foreign terrorist organisation” that the US government recognises as the “public face” of the “Real IRA" – the group that killed 29 people in the 1998 car bombing of Omagh (though members have denied the allegation in the past). 

A cemetery in Londonderry

The show also hosted Colin Duffy, who is currently on remand for various terrorist-related offences, including conspiracy to murder members of the security forces. In 2009, the 46-year-old former Provisional IRA member was accused of murdering two soldiers, before a judge dismissed the charges, citing insufficient evidence for a conviction. 

Despite suffering deficits, a dwindling audience and layoffs of most of its staff, WBAI still averages 134,600 listeners a week in the New York area. However, in between songs and interviews, Radio Free Éireann spends much of its airtime raising money to keep its wholly-listener-supported FM station afloat.

McDonagh says it isn’t just financial pressures and the wealth of other material online that threaten the show, but also censorship of a number of leading “dissidents” from Northern Ireland. “During the 80s we were able to interview people who got out of prison,” he said. “Now, the British government has wised up to that and they made part of the bail conditions [for released Republican offenders that] they can’t do any media interviews.”

A recent anti-internment march in Belfast

The most high profile figure to have been denied media access after being released on bail is convicted double murderer Martin Corey. In what republicans decried as internment, 63-year-old Corey had his parole revoked over “dissident” activity eight years after his 1992 release and was held for nearly four years, until January of 2014, without trial or charge. Authorities said he posed an unspecified public risk over allegations that he was a leader within the Continuity IRA. Bans were also filed against loyalists Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazier, who led last year’s violent “flag protests”, though a judge later threw out the restrictions. 

Media bans are the lowest form of censorship, said Trainor, who once had one imposed on herself as a result of a televised interview. The ban – and a charge of encouraging acts of terrorism – was later dropped. “The British government is just so intent on keeping up this veil of a peaceful six counties that they’re willing to slap this media ban on anybody who’s rocking the boat,” she told me.

Even without the bans, Trainor said the media in Ireland and the UK is very selective on what they will speak to Republican Sinn Féin about, and claimed state broadcasters like RTE and BBC are particularly hostile. “They don’t want us to give context around anything if we don’t fit into their narrative of being crazy dissidents who want to kill everybody. They don’t want to hear,” she said, before adding that Free Radio Éireann is considerably more welcoming.

A mural in South Boston (Photo by Tim Blobar)

McDonagh estimates that only a few hundred Americans support Republican groups opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, as compared to the more substantial support the Provisional IRA received.

This support has been further weakened by splits within the community, like when, in 2000, McDonagh – as chairman of the National Irish Freedom Committee (NIFC) – expelled its Chicago branch for diverting funds from supporting Continuity IRA prisoners to their Real IRA counterparts. The expelled branch leader later turned out to be an FBI and MI5 informant whose testimony led to the conviction of the leader of the Real IRA in the Omagh bombing.

While no longer chairman of NIFC, McDonagh says he still attends its fundraisers and promotes them on air, but recognises the limits of giving support. “We can support them, but, at the end of the day, it’s them that are going to be going to jail,” he said.

Closer to home, McDonagh rejects the terrorist designations that the US government has placed on violent IRA factions. “It’s such a hypocrisy,” he sighed. “Omagh was a tragedy, but I’m a veteran of the United States Army. Nobody has caused more atrocities around the world than we have – even now to this day, with Obama sanctioning the killing of US citizens and the drone attacks blowing up wedding parties.”

McDonagh added that questions around the morality of IRA violence should be left up to the people of the “six counties”, even though an overwhelming majority of northern nationalists already approved the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The biggest problem with Sinn Féin, according to McDonagh, is that they haven’t admitted that the Provisional IRA lost. Likewise, he thinks Republicans still pursuing an armed campaign of violence will come to the realisation that they have no public support and will put their guns away, just like the IRA of 1962 did at the end of their failed “border campaign”.

“There was no shame after 30 years in saying that you lost this rebellion or uprising,” he said.

In stark contrast with the Provisional IRA, who decommissioned instead of “dumping” arms, McDonagh is comforted by continuing the four century-old tradition of defeated but defiant Irish rebels returning home with weapons still in hand. “It has been done throughout Irish history, where they admitted they've taken up the guns, lost, then ‘saved the pike in the thatch’ and waited for another generation,” he said

Some day WBAI’s airwaves will fall silent, taking Radio Free Éireann with it. But as long as the dream of a united Ireland remains unfulfilled, the murals of Belfast’s housing estates will continue to echo among America's Irish diaspora, finding sympathetic ears and, ultimately, wallets. 

McDonagh told me the solution for Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions lie with the British leaving. “Surely to God it's not going to happen by administering British law and giving support to the British police,” he said. “However, if it does happen, it is going to be happening by the [will of] people in Ireland, with support from the United States. No matter what support they have in the United States, unless the Irish people rise up to do something, it is not going to happen.”

@coffmansmith

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