NEW YORK — When Martin Galvin walked into the Irish Northern Aid office one Saturday morning six months ago, he found it virtually empty. Gone were the files, the telephones, the checkbooks, the fax machine.
All that was left were some rusty old desks. On his own desk, Galvin found a message: "Free State Traitor."
The office, he realized, had not been raided by British agents or Protestant terrorists, but other members of Irish Northern Aid, or NORAID, an American group supporting the guerrilla war against British rule in Northern Ireland.
For 20 years, NORAID has been the heart of the insular world of American Irish nationalists, to whom "Free State traitor"--a phrase meaningless to most Irish Americans, since the Irish Free State hasn't existed for more than 40 years--is a choice insult.
The hijacking of the NORAID office last July opened a rift among the Irish Republican Army's American supporters that left at least three factions, reduced the flow of dollars to Ireland and raised doubts that the cause of Irish nationalism will ever win much support in the United States.
"How can unity be brought about if the major victims continue to snipe at each other?" asked Paul O'Dwyer, former New York City Council president and a longtime defender of the IRA.
NORAID was organized in 1970 by Michael Flannery, an old IRA soldier who had lived in New York since the 1920s. The IRA was dormant for years until the late 1960s, when Protestant mobs attacked Catholic civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland and Britain sent in troops to keep order. The soldiers quickly came to blows with a revived IRA who didn't want the English in Ulster under any circumstances.
NORAID contributed millions of dollars, ostensibly to IRA soldiers' families, although it was widely suspected of diverting funds to buy weapons. British politicians and the tabloids made NORAID a whipping boy of the conflict.
But NORAID never grew beyond its narrow base of Irish-born Americans in the cities of the Northeast, and Sinn Fein, the IRA's political party and the conduit of NORAID funds--began to want more than money.
The United States was a critical diplomatic and propaganda battlefield, where the nationalist message had to reach a broader audience. It had to focus on the present rather than the past. Instead of lamenting the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921-- a first step in Irish independence that nevertheless preserved British rule in the North--NORAID needed to call attention to British abuses of civil rights and the material misery of the province's Catholic minority.
Yet NORAID remained little more than a loose federation with no regular meetings, dues or membership roll. It centered on fund-raising events--rallies, dances, testimonials, pub socials--and sales of T-shirts and raffle tickets. At the end of 1988, NORAID agreed to try to broaden its appeal and its executive committee was expanded. Sinn Fein sent an organizer to the United States, and more time and money was devoted to lobbying and propaganda.
The new emphasis suited Galvin, an articulate young lawyer, far more than it did Pat O'Connell, NORAID's president. O'Connell, who left Ireland in 1961, is as uncomfortable with politics as he is dedicated to fund-raising.
Americans, he says, "are fed up with their own nation's politics. They sure as hell don't want to get involved in Irish politics. They only want to give money for the prisoners and their families, not for political lobbying."
O'Connell and the Sinn Fein organizer clashed repeatedly, but O'Connell no longer had the support of the expanded NORAID board. So, one night in July, he and several supporters cleaned out NORAID's Manhattan office. They opened a new office in the Bronx, disconnected the NORAID telephone and replaced its listing with the number for the Bronx location.
For a while, there were two NORAIDS. Galvin and NORAID's executive committee took out a newspaper ad that denied there had been a split and "reaffirmed" that NORAID's address and phone number were the same as ever.
Finally, after some prodding from Sinn Fein, O'Connell returned the files and agreed to stop using the NORAID name.
The rift widened in October, when a letter published in New York's two Irish weeklies charged that under Galvin and company, NORAID was "being steered in a direction toward politics and away from its original humanitarian objectives."
The 41 signers included leading Irish dissenters, but the big surprise was the first name: Michael Flannery, at 88 still the most respected Irish nationalist in America. Flannery, it turned out, had quietly resigned from NORAID in 1986, after Sinn Fein declared itself willing to take seats in the Irish parliament, which he regards as the equivalent of the illegitimate Free State parliament.