Tip O Neill1T.P. O’Neill (1912-1994) Irish American Politician (1926-1987) and Speaker (Leader) of the American House of Representatives (1977-1987)

For 10 years Tip O’Neill was, as Speaker of the American House of Representatives. Tip achieved over a long political life very great improvements in the lives of not alone his fellow Irish Americans but also of the least privileged in America generally.

His maternal grandmother Eunice (Unity) Fullerton was born outside Buncrana, Co Donegal. He was, therefore an illustrious and eminent member of the Irish Diaspora.

In 1991 President Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian award, which is presented for especial meritorious contributions to the national interests of America and World peace. It was well merited by Tip O’Neill.


In 1977 he denounced violence in Northern Ireland and used his influential position as Speaker to play a key and indeed a pivotal role in bringing about peace in Ireland. During the final stages of the discussions he told British officials he could deliver financial support to underpin the Agreement. On the day the Agreement was signed, President Reagan and Tip in a joint announcement gave an assurance of financial support. This resulted in the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) which since 1985 has paid out millions of pounds/euro to projects in Northern Ireland and the 6 border counties in the Republic.

An annual Tip O’Neill Donegal Diaspora Award has been established to acknowledge his many outstanding achievements, give credit to an illustrious grandson of a Donegal emigrant, and an eminent member of the Irish Diaspora.

* * *

The Anglo-American Alliance and the Irish Question: the Role of Tip O’Neill

By Ronan Fanning

The Anglo-American alliance, Britain’s so-called ‘special relationship’ with the United States, dictated American policy on Ireland for the first three quarters of the 20th century. From the Paris peace conference of 1919, in which President Woodrow Wilson resisted Sinn Fein’s claim to participate because he would not ‘imperil the work of the entire conference or Anglo-American co-operation in order to force an Irish settlement’.[i] through World War II when Ireland’s neutrality angered both the British and the Americans and through the first three decades of the Cold War that policy remained unchanged.

It was best summarised by Secretary of State Cordell Hull when he rejected a proposal by John Cudahy, the American Minister in Ireland, that President Roosevelt invite the British ambassador in Washington to the White House to express an interest in the settlement of Anglo-Irish differences on Northern Ireland. The partition of Ireland, declared Hull in March 1940, was ‘a matter in which the United States government could not properly intervene’.[ii]

To ‘do the minimum’ towards Ireland remained the recurrent theme of American policy towards Ireland for the first twenty-five years of the Cold War. That policy was set fast in 1948-49 when the enactment of the Republic of Ireland Act and the final breach with the Commonwealth coincided with the new Irish government’s rejection of the invitation to join the newly-established North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Tip O’Neill played a key role in dismantling that policy. His term of office as Speaker of the House of Representatives, from 1977 until his retirement in 1986, was book-ended by two presidential initiatives that transformed United States policy towards Northern Ireland: President Carter’s initiative of August 1977 and President Reagan’s role in persuading Margaret Thatcher to conclude the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 with the Irish government that laid the foundations for the coming of peace in Northern Ireland. Tip O’Neill, through his use of the power of the Speaker’s office behind the scenes to put pressure on the White House, was the principal architect of both initiatives.

The ‘special relationship’ was exceptionally important to the United States at the outset of the Cold War when they saw an enfeebled Britain as the lynch-pin of their alliance against the Soviet Union. Hence the State Department’s advice to President Truman before Eamon de Valera’s courtesy call during his unofficial 1948 visit to the United States to stick rigidly to the pre-war line. If de Valera raised the subject of partition, he should ‘be informed that this Government considers the matter the concern of the Irish and United Kingdom Governments, and one in which this Government should not intrude’.[iii]

Although the advantages of Ireland’s membership of NATO featured in the preliminary discussions of the Washington working group which drafted the blueprint for its establishment, the tone of the debate on Ireland’s possible place in the new security arrangements changed after the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, dropped a diplomatic bombshell in Ottawa on 7 September 1948, setting in train the events leading to the Republic of Ireland Act and the severance of Ireland’s last link with the Commonwealth. The formula finally agreed by the working group was that ‘Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Ireland and Portugal should be invited to join the Pact if they are willing (author’s italics)’. It was also agreed that the United States would be responsible for extending the invitations.[iv] But a British caveat that ‘their Government would have comments to make on the timing and method of any approach, whether formal or informal, to Eire’, reflected their determination to control Irish policy albeit through the Americans as agents.[v]

On 1 January 1949 a Cabinet committee report spelt out the British assessment  of the strategic significance of Ireland’s breach with the Commonwealth:

‘… now that Eire will shortly cease to owe any allegiance to the Crown, it has become a matter of first-class strategic importance to this country that the north should continue to form part of His Majesty’s dominions. So far as can be foreseen, it will never (author’s emphasis) be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should form part of a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction. Indeed it seems unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree to this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it.’[vi]

Three days later the State Department duly instructed the American Minister in Dublin, George Garrett, to seek any views the Irish government might wish to express informally concerning the form and timing of an official approach.[vii] Garrett was also told that, if the Irish government raised the partition issue, he ‘should make clear that we consider two questions totally unrelated and that we [would] take their action in raising partition question to mean they are not seriously interested in [the North] Atlantic Pact and will accordingly not consult them further’. [viii]

Years later, Ted Achilles, the State Department official who had drafted these instructions, summed up their significance in less diplomatic language.

‘We did invite Ireland to join the [North Atlantic] pact as an important stepping stone in anti-submarine warfare. We doubted that they would accept. They replied that they would be delighted to join provided we could get the British to give them back the six Northern counties. We simply replied, in effect, that “it’s been nice knowing you” and that was that.[ix]

And that was that for the best part of another thirty years.

The American obsession that their Irish policy must never cause British resentment is best exemplified by their agonising over whether the President Truman should send a message of congratulations to the Irish Government on the inauguration of the Republic of Ireland (on 18 April 1949) when Dean Acheson, the ardently Anglophile Secretary of State, took the extraordinary step of asking the American Ambassador in London to seek British approval for so mundane an action. The Foreign Office, doubtless charmed and reassured by such a striking demonstration of American deference to their wishes, responded with magnanimity; they had not the ‘slightest objection’ to the United States Government sending such a message, but would consider it ‘perfectly natural and normal’.[x]

A ‘Review of the World Situation’ prepared by the CIA in April 1949 (which drew up a balance sheet of the relative security positions of the United States and of the Soviet Union) spelt out American indifference to Ireland’s not joining NATO. It identified the inclusion of Norway, Denmark, Portugal and Italy as strengths and the absence of Sweden and exclusion of Spain and Austria as weaknesses; but of Ireland it made no mention whatsoever.[xi] The geo-strategic reality was that Ireland’s participation in NATO was unnecessary for NATO’s success because Northern Ireland (as part of the United Kingdom) was in NATO and effectively provided for what the State Department’s Policy Statement on Ireland in August 1950 described as ‘the strategic unity of the British Isles’.[xii]

Ireland’s ‘military potential was by no means an element essential’ to NATO’s success … The denial of Ireland to enemy forces is already encompassed in existing N[orth]A[tlantic]T[reaty] commitments’, concluded a National Security Council’s position papers (NSC 83/1) the key document for an assessment of American strategic interests in Ireland during the Cold War.[xiii]  NSC 83/1 had been prompted by the secret diplomatic efforts, in 1950-51, of the Irish Minister for External Affairs, Sean MacBride, to negotiate a bilateral defence treaty with the United States.[xiv] It recognised that Ireland could make ‘a valuable contribution’ to NATO and that ‘its unqualified adherence would be both logical and desirable’; but it also noted that the Irish Government’s refusal ‘to separate the question of adherence to NATO from the partition issue … puts a price on its adherence’ and reaffirmed American unwillingness to pay that price.

The recommendations in NSC 83/1 – that the United States should, first, ‘continue its policy of ‘readiness to welcome Ireland’ as a member of NATO, while ‘leaving the initiative to Ireland’ and, second, should ‘avoid discussion of bilateral arrangements’ outside NATO – were adopted by the National Security Council on 2 November 1950 and approved by President Truman next day. Ten years later – in the same month, coincidentally, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President – the National Security Council Planning Board reviewed NSC 83/1 and concluded that ‘it remains valid and does not require updating.[xv]

President Kennedy’s friendship with the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and his careful cultivation of the ‘special relationship’ belied his Irish Catholic ancestry. Kennedy was ‘British inclined and …  makes no secret of his firm attachment to Britain’, reported Dr T. J. Kiernan, the Irish Ambassador in Washington, only three months before the ill-fated President’s euphoric visit to Ireland in the summer of 1963. Kiernan also advised that Kennedy would want to avoid raising the subject of partition ‘when Britain has so many pressing problems to solve ‘.[xvi]

Nor did things change under the Johnson administration. The State Department responded to one of the periodic protests from a lobby of Irish-American republicans that ‘a state of occupation’ existed in Northern Ireland with arguments that ‘the Government of Northern Ireland is a freely elected one which represents the majority’s views in a society where the right to dissent is protected by law’, that it was not United States policy ‘to intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign states’, that the Department considered ‘the relations between the British authorities and Northern Ireland to be just such an internal matter’ and that they valued the continued use of the naval base at Derry ‘because of its usefulness in meeting U. S. security requirements’.[xvii]

Such security considerations continued to colour American attitudes throughout the Nixon years as one Irish Ambassador in Washington painfully discovered when paying his farewells in 1973. His comment on the closeness of the relationship between Ireland and the United States notwithstanding ‘Ireland’s decision not to join NATO’ prompted an acid rejoinder from the Secretary of State which spoke volumes for the enduring American resentment at Irish neutrality: ‘that in this way Ireland could enjoy the benefits of the Alliance without any of the headaches’.[xviii]

The Nixon administration remained essentially unmoved by Irish-American Congressional pressure throughout the first and most violent phase of the Northern Ireland crisis from 1969 until 1976. Although a bipartisan intervention in June 1969 by then Congressmen Tip O’Neill and the Republican Philip Burton of California attracted 102 signatories to a letter to President Nixon protesting against anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland, the State Department’s response was blunt and dismissive: ‘(1) the U. S. has no basis to intervene in internal controversies in other sovereign countries; (2) Northern Ireland is an internally self-governing region of the UK; (3) the problems of Northern Ireland can best be resolved by those directly concerned; (4) HMG and the Government of Northern Ireland are aware of the concerns of Americans as expressed by Congressmen O’Neill and Burton’.[xix]

In August 1969, the battle of the Bogside in Derry had starkly exposed the Irish government’s inability to counter the ‘special relationship’. When Hugh McCann, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, sought the support of American Ambassador, John Moore, for Irish efforts to inscribe the crisis on the agenda of the UN’s Security Council, Moore replied ‘that, because of United States alliances etc., the attitude of the State Department would be negative’.  Although Moore was personally sympathetic – he took the trouble to make a flying visit to the American Embassy in London on August 19th to telephone Secretary of State William Rogers and a contact in the White House because ‘he was satisfied that any telephone call to the United States which he made from (Dublin) would be “tapped” by the British’ – his analysis proved correct.[xx]

The State Department’s Note[xxi] in response to the representations of  presented by the Irish Chargé d’Affaires at Washington, Seán Ó hEideáin, disingenuously declared that the United States government had ‘no appropriate basis to intervene with regard to the domestic political situation or civil disturbances in other sovereign countries’ and that they believed ‘that the problem concerning Northern Ireland can best be resolved by those who are directly concerned’. In effect, observed Ó hEideáin, this accepted ‘the British contention that the situation is an internal British matter’; he concluded that the ‘traditional State Department assumption that Ireland by geography and history belongs within the British sphere of influence … will take a lot of changing’.[xxii]

A bilateral meeting between Secretary of State Rogers and Irish Minister for External Affairs, Patrick Hillery, during the UN General Assembly in New York in September 1969 confirmed these geo-political realities. Hillery’s explanation that his purpose in bringing the Northern Ireland question to the UN was ‘”to keep trying to get the British to talk on this matter”‘, evoked the time-honoured State Department response from Rogers (‘that we did not wish to interfere in problems between our good friends’) and he fobbed Hillery off with the suggestion that, if there were any specific matters he wished to raise with the U. S. government, he should feel free to get in touch with Ambassador Moore. After expressing hope that the time might come when Rogers ‘could give “a little encouragement” to the British on working out a solution in Northern Ireland and appreciation that he had been given a hearing, Hillery concluded on a note of resigned pathos: ‘”I have got all from you that I could have asked”‘.[xxiii] Resignation likewise characterised Hillery’s brief meeting with Rogers during Nixon’s visit to Ireland a year later when, while expressing  ‘his government’s concern over the situation in Northern Ireland’, he obviously regarded it as pointless to press even for minimal American intervention.[xxiv]

Indeed such was the Irish government’s impotence in breaking the British stranglehold in Washington that the then Irish Ambassador, William Fay – a ‘good friend and golfing partner’ of Secretary of State William Rogers – despaired to the point of advising his superiors in Dublin that it would be imprudent ‘to become involved in any Congressional activity on this subject’.[xxv]

The Nixon administration were sustained in their non-interventionism by their Ambassador in London, Walter Annenberg, whose telegrams reveal how Foreign Office officials kept their American counterparts well informed about just how far they were willing to go in sustaining Jack Lynch’s beleaguered government in Dublin. Paddy Hillery’s periodic visits to London, reported Annenberg, were ‘only of importance as reassurance of good UK-Irish relations despite Ulster problem. For domestic political reasons, Irish officials must be seen as active, and HMG perfectly prepared to cooperate by accepting routine visits on roughly semi-annual schedule’.[xxvi] As Rogers advised Nixon before Jack Lynch’s St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington in 1971, the United States continued ‘to consider that problems in Northern Ireland are the domestic responsibility of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part’,.[xxvii]

Nor did the killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry, on 30 January 1972, make any impact on American attitudes despite the advice of the American Embassy in Dublin that Irish sensitivities about Northern Ireland had ‘risen to a very high degree’. It reported on the ‘resentment’ and ‘bitterness’ arising from American unwillingness to support Irish efforts to have the issue of Northern Ireland inscribed on the UN Security Council and General Assembly agendas in 1969, and to the American ‘refusal to intervene with (the) British’ after the introduction of internment in August 1971. When Hillery called upon Secretary of State Rogers on February 3rd, they predicted that he would ‘not be satisfied by polite expressions of sympathy’ and would ‘expect at least a U. S. commitment to approach (the) British and ask them to take steps to relieve tensions’. The advice from the Dublin embassy was that the ‘U.S. should be forthcoming on this issue’ on the grounds that the ‘cost to U. S. relations with Ireland of not doing anything’ considerably outweighed the ‘possibility that U. S. relations with Britain will suffer very much if we approach HMG’.[xxviii] Hillery’s representations were

likely to be emotionally charged. We do not believe, however, that our response to the Irish government should be based primarily upon concerns for Ireland’s problems, although these cannot be totally ignored. We believe that our response should be based upon our own interests … It is in our national interest to show as much responsiveness as possible to Dr Hillery’s appeal. We believe that we could at least agree to tell the British about his approach, to repeat to them his concerns, and to tell them something about our own. We do not believe that the expressions of concern amounts to the abandonment of a basically neutral position.[xxix]

The divergence of the American Embassy in Dublinfrom the State Department’s traditional hard line in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday got short shrift in Washington. Although the Secretary of State acknowledged that Hillery had not asked the U. S. ‘to “intervene” in the Irish situation in any formal sense’ or to ‘adopt a hostile attitude towards Great Britain’, he had suggested that they approach ‘the British and advise them in a friendly fashion that they should change their policy towards Northern Ireland’. The response was unyielding: Rogers ‘did not believe it would be useful for us to make judgments in this situation and therefore we could not go to the British and tell them that their policy is wrong and that they should change it.  Such an approach to the British would be taking sides’.[xxx]

The restrictions upon the Irish government’s room for manoeuvre again emerged at a meeting in the White House between Hillery and President Nixon in October 1972. Although Nixon stressed that the U. S. was ‘not in a position to openly or publicly intervene in Northern Ireland’, he expressed his appreciation of the Lynch government’s ‘constructive attitude in cooperating with the British to find a peaceful solution’. Hillery replied with what had become his stock response: that ‘his government did not seek open or public declarations by the United States Government’ but hoped that they would make their views known in their ‘private discussions with the British’.[xxxi]

This account of the strength of the British stranglehold on the Irish policy of the United States government from 1945 until 1976 well illustrates the magnitude of Tip O’Neill’s achievement in persuading Jimmy Carter ‘to drop the “hands-off” U. S. policy towards Northern Ireland’ when he became the first democratic incumbent of White House since 1969.  Although O’Neill admitted, in a confidential note to the new Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, that ‘it would be simplistic to expect early dramatic developments’, he urged that the United States ‘should take whatever helpful initiatives … lie within its power’.[xxxii]

Irish pressure in Washington for a relaxation of the hawkish rigidity of the Cold War had begun to intensify after the change of government in Dublin in 1973 when Garret FitzGerald became Minister for Foreign Affairs. John Hume, the inspirational leader of the SDLP, was by then ‘already successfully ploughing his parallel furrow in Washington, gaining the support of Ted Kennedy for the SDLP/Irish State stance against violence in the North’. This assumed added significance after the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive in 1974. Irish diplomats sent to Washington by the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Garret FitzGerald, notably Michael Lillis and Seán Donlon, ‘brought together as leaders of Irish-American opinion what soon became known as the Four Horsemen: Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senators Ted Kennedy and Pat Moynihan, and Governor Hugh Carey’.[xxxiii]

Lillis (the press officer in the Irish Consulate in New York who was promoted as counsellor to the Washington embassy in 1976) and Donlon (then the head of the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs who, after Lillis’s departure, became Irish Ambassador to the United States) sought ‘to use Washington to persuade the British government’ to reaffirm their commitment to power-sharing in order to strengthen moderate Catholic nationalists.  Lillis’s strategy was to ignore the irreconcilably Anglophile State Department and instead to build close ties with Congressional leaders and with the National Security Council (NSC) and, in particular, with Robert Hunter, its director of Western European Affairs – the NSC had increasingly acquired the status of a quasi-independent Presidential instrument for the direction of foreign policy.  Lillis also quickly won the confidence and respect of Tip O’Neill’ and welded the Four Horsemen ‘into a club with which to beat NORAID [the Irish Northern Aid Committee] and [Irish National] Caucus supporters’ of the IRA.[xxxiv]

The Four Horsemen rode into the ascendant in January 1977 when Jimmy Carter became President and when Tip O’Neill became Speaker of the House. Lillis, who had already ‘established a relationship with the political leaders on Capitol Hill that had no parallel among other EC missions’, laid the groundwork for what became the Carter initiative.  Lillis has recently been well described by Robert Hunter as the ‘Irish Toscanini’ of an extraordinary orchestra of politicians and officials in Washington: ‘the rest of us, including the 4 folks from the Apocalypse, just played our instruments when you pointed the baton at us’.[xxxv] Tip O’Neill’s secretary, Christine Sullivan Daly, has likewise recalled how Lillis ‘led and guided’ an alliance of politicians spearheaded by the Four Horsemen, journalists such as Mary MacGrory and business leaders like Tony O’Reilly and Dan Rooney, ‘all coming together in the same cause of bringing peace to the North’.[xxxvi] And Garret FitzGerald has written of how Lillis brought the Irish Government’s ‘contacts with the Irish Congressional leadership to a stage of intimacy never hitherto achieved, the results of which were demonstrated in the joint statement of the ‘Four Horsemen’ on St Patrick’s Day 1977, which launched the Friends of Ireland movement in Congress’.[xxxvii]

The Carter initiative took the form of a seven-paragraph statement on Ireland issued from the White House on 30 August 1977. It appealed to Irish-Americans not to support violence in Ireland and committed the Carter administration to the establishment in Northern Ireland of a form of government commanding broad support in both communities there. It also stated that, in the event of a peaceful settlement, the United States would be prepared with others to provide aid for investment in new employment.[xxxviii]

What Carter’s statement said was less significant than what it symbolised. The United States government’s policy had been governed by the principle of non-intervention for over seventy years, ever since the Anglo-Irish settlements of 1920-22 had partitioned Ireland. President Carter had broken that principle beyond repair and had taken ‘an important first step in undermining the British Government’s position, notwithstanding the mild nature of the actual content’.[xxxix] His initiative ‘was the first direct presidential expression of a legitimate US interest. It conflicted directly with the wishes of the British Foreign Office, and set in motion a bout of international activity, which bore fruit in the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.’[xl]

None understood its significance better than the British who thwarted the initial intention of launching the initiative on St Patrick’s Day and who, ‘having at first tried to discourage any initiative at all, then tried to detach the promise of aid from the search for an acceptable solution’.[xli] Indeed Sean Donlon, who as Ambassador to Washington in 1978-81 took every advantage of what Garret FitzGerald described as ‘the spectacular opening that Michael Lillis had achieved’[xlii], has acknowledged the initial success of

… British influence and the skills of British diplomacy in exploiting to the full the special relationship between London and Washington. It took six months of patient and, at times, painful and bruising Irish diplomatic activity to overcome the many obstacles created by the British and to nudge the Carter administration into its new position. [xliii]

After the election of a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, in November 1980, ‘the US foreign policy establishment reverted to its traditional stance: that the United States should not anger Great Britain, its closest Cold War ally, by meddling in its internal affairs’.[xliv]   In Britain, too, power had shifted to the right when Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party to victory in the general election of 1979. With ‘the relationship between prime minister and president … about to enter a phase’ described sardonically by the American Ambassador in London, ‘of almost delirious mutual admiration’,[xlv] Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy got nowhere when they asked Reagan to press Thatcher to negotiate an end to the hunger-strike in which ten IRA prisoners died in 1981. Reagan’s national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, saw ‘”little to be gained by such a meeting” (and) was more upset at the verbal “harassment” that Irish-American demonstrators were giving British diplomats in the United States. …”It is intolerable that the representatives of our staunchest ally in the world are subjected to this sort of treatment”.[xlvi] Reagan again ‘rebuffed O’Neill’s requests to add Ireland to the agenda’ for his Washington meeting with Thatcher in 1983 and efforts to enlist support for the Report of the New Ireland Forum in 1984 likewise came to nothing. The National Security Council agreed with the State Department  ‘that it would be inappropriate to draw the White House into the middle of this complex, historical problem’ and argued that they should not allow themselves ‘to be used by the Irish; particularly since the Irish have not been especially supportive of (United States) interests on such issues as Central America’.[xlvii]

But Tip O’Neill persevered and, thanks to Seán Donlon, the Irish government had another ally in ‘the key player on Irish matters in the US administration in the first half of the 1980s’: former Californian Supreme Court Judge, William Clarke, who became National Security Adviser in 1981. Bill Clarke was a personal friend of Donlon (now the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs) and his efforts, together with Tip O’Neill’s, ‘ensured that there was in Washington a bipartisan network capable of responding to Irish needs’.[xlviii] Clarke visited Donlon in Ireland five times between 1981 and 1985. ‘Any time Thatcher was due to meet Reagan, Donlon set up a meeting with Clark to discuss Northern Ireland and how the administration might let Thatcher know of its continuing concern’.[xlix]

The Clarke-O’Neill axis was instrumental in persuading ‘Reagan – fresh off a sentimental trip to his ancestral home of Ballyporeen in Ireland in the summer of 1984 – … to overcome the pro-British leanings of the US State Department’. Relations between Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald had sunk to their lowest ebb as a result of her peremptory ‘Out! Out! Out!’ dismissal of the three options in the New Ireland Forum Report in her press conference after their Chequers summit on 19 November 1984. O’Neill’s representations, in urging Reagan to persuade Thatcher to soften her stance at their Camp David summit on December 22nd, were crucial.[l] Although Reagan’s intervention was not altruistic – ‘his Administration was irritated both with O’Neill and with the Irish government ‘ for their leftist stands on Nicaragua and, as one National Security Council official put it, they hoped to use it ‘as a lever against Tip in order to get Contra aid moving’[li] – it was decisive in setting the Thatcher-FitzGerald negotiations back on track. This culminated in their signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough on 15 November 1985.

But let me end on a personal note. I had a ringside seat in Washington in the summer of 1977 for the Irish-British diplomatic wrestling match over the Carter initiative. I had first met and become friendly with Michael Lillis when I had taken up an appointment as a Fulbright Research Professor at the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown University for the academic year 1976-7. So obdurate and protracted was the British rearguard action against the prospect of any statement being issued by the White House that Michael was home in Ireland on annual leave with his wife Jane and their children when it was published while I was house-sitting in his Georgetown home with Ted Smyth who had come from the Consulate General in New York to cover in his absence. Given that the subject of my Fulbright research was the Anglo-American alliance and the Irish question after World War II, the temptation to offer my opinion on the historical significance of the Carter initiative was irresistible and I succeeded in publishing an article on the op-ed page of the Washington Post on 4 September 1977.[lii] This week in course of preparing for this talk I retrieved a copy of that long-forgotten article from the archives.

Why, I began by asking, did ‘President Carter now step in where his predecessors feared to tread?’ The decisive factor, I argued, was the sustained Congressional pressure led by Tip O’Neill. The policies advocated by the Four Horsemen, at the risk of losing electoral support among those in their constituencies sympathetic to the IRA, had ‘now found formal expression as U.S. government policy’. What President Carter’s statement might achieve in the short term was, I suggested, difficult to assess. But, ‘when no final settlement is in sight, there seem[ed] little point in dwelling on such details. … For the moment at least, what the President ha[d] said was more significant them the fact that he ha[d] spoken.’

I wrote those words thirty-eight years ago this month and hope that you may agree with me that this appraisal of the significance of the role of Tip O’Neill has stood the test of time.


[i] Francis M. Carroll, American Opinion and the Irish Question 1910-23 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1978), p. 123.

[ii] ‘United States policy on the Irish partition question’, p. 8.

[iii] Marshall to Truman, 9 March 1948, 032/–948, NAW.

[iv] Portugal, which was to receive a joint Anglo-American approach, was an exception.

[v] Washington Security Talks – Report of the Working Group to the Ambassador’s Committee, 24 Dec. 1948, Annex D, p. 2, 840.20/12-2448, NAW.

[vi] 1 Jan. 1949, quoted in Sloan,  Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations, pp. 249-50.

[vii] Under-Secretary of State Lovett to American Legation in Dublin 4 Jan. 1949, 840.20/1-449, NAW.

[viii] Under-Secretary of State Lovett to American Legation in Dublin 10 Jan. 1949, 840.20/1-849, NAW.

[ix] Transcript of Oral History Interview with Theodore Achilles, 13 Nov. 1972, p. 62, Truman Library.

[x] Ambassador Lewis Douglas to Secretary of State (tel. 1464), 11 April 1949, 841d.01/4-1149 NAW.

[xi] PSF, NSC meetings, box 206, CIA 4-49, Truman Library.

[xii] 611.40a/8-1550 NAW.

[xiii] PSF box 209, Truman papers, Truman Library.

[xiv] See Ronan Fanning, ‘The United States and Irish participation in NATO: the debate of 1950’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, I, 1, 38-48, for more extensive quotations from NSC 83/1.

[xv] Memorandum from James S. Lay Jr. (Executive Secretary to the NSC) to the NSC, 10 Nov. 1960 – attached to the copy of NSC 83/1 NAW.

[xvi] Richard Aldous, ‘Perfect Peace? Macmillan and Ireland’, Richard Aldous and Sabine Lee, Harold Macmillan: Aspects of a Political Life (London: Macmillan Press, 1999), p. 141.

[xvii] William B, Macomber, Jr. (Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations) to Congressman William F. Ryan, 2 June 1967, POL 32-3 IRE, NAW.

[xviii] Memorandum of conversation between the Secretary of State and the Irish Ambassador, William Warnock, 2 Aug. 1973, POL 15-5 IRE-US, NAW.

[xix] Memorandum for Henry A. Kissinger on the letter to the President of 24 June 1969 from Congressmen O’Neill and Burton, et al, 27 June 1969, POL IRE-US 1969, NAW – a copy of the O’Neill-Burton letter and the list of 102 signatories is appended. Cf. John Dumbrell, ‘The United States and the Northern Ireland conflict 1969-94: from indifference to intervention’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 6 (1995) 115.

[xx] Hugh McCann’s minute of conversations with John Moore on 19 August 1969, 20 Aug. 1969. NAI DT 2000/6/658.

[xxi] 26 Aug. 1969, NAI DFA 2000/14/465.

[xxii] ‘Northern Ireland: State Department Reaction’, Seán Ó hEideáin to Department of External Affairs, 28 Aug. 1969, NAI DT 2000/6/659.

[xxiii] Memorandum on Secretary of State’s bilateral talk with Minister for External Affairs Hillery, 22 Sept. 1969, POL IRE-US 1969 NAW.

[xxiv] Telegram from the American Embassy in Dublin to the Secretary of State, summarising the discussions between Rogers and Hillery at Dublin Castle on 5 Oct. 1970, Dublin 952/10-8-70 NAW.

[xxv] NAI DFA 2000/14/465. Rogers so described Fay after his sudden death while on leave in Dublin on 7 Sept. 1969 in conversation with Irish Minister for External Affairs, Patrick Hillery, on 22 Sept. 1969, POL IRE-US 1969 NAW. See also Ronan Fanning, ‘Playing it cool: the response of the British and Irish governments to the crisis in Northern Ireland, 1968-69’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 12 (2001) 57-85.

[xxvi] Annenberg to Secretary of State, 26 Feb. 1971, London – 1715, 2-26-71, NAW.

[xxvii] Memorandum to the President on the Lynch visit, 12 Mar. 1971, POL-IRE 1971, NAW.

[xxviii] Telegram from American Embassy in Dublin to Secretary of State, 2 Feb. 1972, Dublin 128/2-2-72, NAW.

[xxix] Telegram from American Embassy in Dublin to Secretary of State, Dublin 139/2-3-72, NAW.

[xxx] State Department to Embassy in Dublin, 7 Mar. 1972, briefing material on ‘semantic difficulties re Hillery visit’ for ‘use as necessary’, POL IRE-US 083918, NAW.

[xxxi] Memorandum of conversation between the President and the Irish Foreign Minister, 6 Oct. 1972, POL 7 IRE 1972, NAW.

[xxxii] John A. Farrell, Tip O’Neill (Boston & New York, 2001), pp. 512-13.

[xxxiii] See Garret FitzGerald’s appreciation on the death of Tip O’Neill, ‘The most helpful ally Ireland ever had in Washington’, Irish Times, 8 Jan. 1994.

[xxxiv] Jack Holland, The American Connection: U.S. Guns, Money and Influence in Northern Ireland (New York: Viking, 1987), pp. 122-3.

[xxxv] Bob Hunter to Michael Lillis, 30 July 2015 (email)

[xxxvi] Christine Sullivan Daly to Michael Lillis, 14 Sept. 2015 (email).

[xxxvii] Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life: an Autobiography (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1991), pp. 330, 348.

[xxxviii]  See Holland, American Connection, pp. 127-8, for the full text of the Carter initiative.

[xxxix]Adrian Guelke, Northern Ireland: the International Perspective (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), chapter 7, ‘The American Connection’, p. 139.

[xl] Dumbrell, ‘The United States and the Northern Ireland conflict’, 116.

[xli] Holland,  American Connection, p. 126.

[xlii] FitzGerald,  Autobiography, p. 331.

[xliii] Seán Donlon, ‘Bringing Irish diplomatic and political influence to bear on Washington’, Irish Times, 25 Jan. 1993.

[xliv] John Aloysius Farrell, ‘Reagan, O’Neill aided North Ireland peace – Thatcher heard appeals, files show’, Boston Globe, 30 June 2000. This article, based on documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act by the Reagan Presidential Library, contains material not included in the author’s biography of Tip O’Neill.

[xlv]  Raymond Seitz, Over Here (London: Phoenix, 1998), p. 318.

[xlvi]  Allen to Ed Meese, 27 Aug. 1981 – quoted in Farrell, loc. cit.

[xlvii] Ibid. – Peter Sommer to National Security Adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, ? May 1984

[xlviii] Donlon, loc. cit.

[xlix] Holland,  American Connection, p. 143.

[l] Farrell, Tip O’Neill, 623-4 – see especially O’Neill to Reagan, 13 Dec. 1984 (‘The best hope for a peaceful, lawful and constitutional resolution to the tragedy of Northern Ireland may be in serious jeopardy as a result of Mrs. Thatcher’s public statements.’) and Reagan to O’Neill, 9 Jan.  1985 (‘I made a special effort to bring your letter to her personal attention and to convey your message of concern. I also personally emphasized the need for progress in resolving the complex situation in Northern Ireland, and the desirability for flexibility on the part of all the involved parties.’)

[li] Farrell, Tip O’Neill, 624.

[lii] Ronan Fanning, ‘Carter’s First Words about Northern Ireland’, Washington Post, 4 Sept. 1977, p. 83.


Copyright Ronan Fanning (2015) – no reproduction without the author’s written permission.