Collins, Robert. Noraid and The Northern Ireland Troubles, 1970-1994. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2022. ISBN 9781801510189. 224 pages.
Irish Northern Aid, shortened to Noraid or INA, was a support group formed in New York in spring of 1970 amidst the clamor from Irish American communities responding to the escalating crisis in Northern Ireland. Founded by white, Irish-born men who had immigrated to the United States during the 1920s, initially Noraid’s leadership embodied the heretofore small but intense form of Irish American militant republicanism borne out of real or imagined exile from Ireland following the outbreak of its civil war. Bolstered by the social conservatism which permeated white ethnic communities within the United States throughout the twentieth century, this form of Irish American republicanism aligned with the long-established feeling of forced emigration from Ireland. While this traditionalist Irish American republicanism had characterized many previous groups, Roberts Collins’s Noraid and the Northern Irish Troubles, 1970-1994 argues that resistance from the British, Irish, and American governments to Noraid, combined with increasingly international media coverage, generated more interest in the organization than any other Irish group in American history.
Collins argues that the organization’s use of publicity is key to understanding its financial success, the latter of which has accounted for the majority of scholarship concerning Noraid (10). Chapters 1 to 4 move chronologically from the development of Irish American militant republicanism in the late eighteenth century through the early 1980s, highlighting how events in Ireland, such as Bloody Sunday in 1972 and the Hunger Strikes in the early 1980s, usually precipitated a surge in support for the organization. The second half of the book adopts a more thematic approach, exploring how Noraid responded to issues like legal action from American authorities, the British Army’s use of plastic bullets, and the development of the MacBride Principles – employment and recruitment guidelines for American corporations operating in Northern Ireland to safeguard equality, adopted from the earlier Sullivan Principles which targeted the apartheid regime in South Africa. Collins draws heavily from the testimony of Martin Galvin, Noraid’s Director of Publicity, but he also uses newspapers and archives from Britain, Ireland, and the United States to elucidate Noraid’s responses to the various events on both sides of the Atlantic in relation to republicanism.
The animosity which underlay the relationship between Noraid and the British, Irish, and American authorities, and the complications this caused the organization, is particularly well illuminated throughout this study. Although the tension between Noraid and government authorities is quite well-known, Collins offers a strong analysis of Noraid’s decision to create separate funds for American-based prisoners and detainees. As he points out, American support for the dependents of republican prisoners in Ireland is “integral to the Irish Republican tradition” (22), and it was for this purpose that Noraid publicized its fundraising functions. However, as Chapter Five outlines, when intensifying scrutiny from American authorities lead to the indictment of several of its members throughout the 1970s and 1980s for alleged gun running, Noraid was forced to create separate campaigns, such as the Dallas Defense Fund in 1972 and the larger Irish American Defense Fund in 1982. Collins demonstrates how the focus of Noraid’s activities rebounded to the United States, especially by the 1980s when it increasingly had to support and defend Irish American republicans, rather than its original goal of publicizing the Irish republican cause globally and supporting the movement in Ireland.
Collins’s examination of the Irish People, a weekly newspaper established in 1972 as the “voice of Irish Republicanism” in the United States, provides valuable insight into Noraid’s position within Irish American communities and their significance nationally and internationally. Collins argues that Noraid spending almost one-third of its total income on funding the publication in its first six months reflected the importance of publicity to the organization’s objectives. Indeed, the publication took on enhanced significance when the U.S. Department of Justice initiated legal action against Irish People to compel them to register as a foreign agent and declare the influence from Noraid. American civil rights organizations like the ACLU came to the paper’s defense, arguing that this was an attack on the freedom of the press in the United States (53).
As aforementioned, much of the contemporary and scholarly attention paid to Noraid has centered on the destination and purpose of the organization’s fundraising, but Collins’s scrutiny of monies both donated to and spent by the organization is quite revealing. Collins analyzes Noraid’s financial reports as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to great effect, estimating that due to Noraid’s continual resistance to financial monitoring, the likely total income for the organization from 1971 until 1990 lay somewhere in excess of three million dollars, rather than the 2.4 million it declared. Unsurprisingly, donations ebbed and flowed in correlation with events in Ireland, with instances like Bloody Sunday and the Hunger Strikes representing the two highest periods of Noraid’s income. Collins demonstrates well how Noraid’s publicity strategies and capabilities had grown between those periods. Learning from the heightened attention after Bloody Sunday, Noraid attempted to capitalize on the renewed focus on Northern Ireland during and after the Hunger Strikes by throwing significant financial resources into advertising and merchandise campaigns in order to promote and sustain interest from the wider public.
Collins’s research into Noraid’s role throughout the tumult of the Northern Irish Troubles adds valuable insight into the multi-layered and complex relationship between Irish Republicans and government bodies and authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Collins could do more, however, to evaluate and situate Noraid within this myriad of relationships, on which there already exists ample scholarship. According to Collins, “There has been little focus on the role of external influences and international groups on the trajectory of the conflict” (9). While it is true that there have been no book-length studies dedicated solely to one non-state organization, this claim is a sweeping generalization, especially regarding “external influences,” that contradicts the historiographic record as well as current discourse. There is a plethora of scholarship on the American governmental and non-governmental influence in Northern Ireland dating back to the 1970s up to Andrew Sanders’s recent The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland, 1960-2008 (2019). Although this makes Collins’s focus on Noraid’s role no less worthwhile, the dismissal of the wealth of current scholarship, and the absence of any historiographical discussion in the extremely short introduction – one and a half pages long – obscures the nuances and importance of Collins’s work.
Collins’s work is supported by significant archival research, and while at times the level of detail provided is admirable, there are some significant omissions. For instance, specific details about the formation of Noraid remain quite vague in this study. Apart from the fact that it formed in the spring of 1970, readers do not learn anything about the organization’s origins nor how it related to other organizations, apart from its later relationship with the Irish National Caucus in the mid-to-late 1970s. Collins correctly asserts that personal relationships within and beyond Noraid were extremely important to the organization’s efficiency and direction, and that conflict often derived from personality clashes rather than ideological disputes. Although these clashes usually manifested within the organization’s leadership and rarely trickled down into the attitudes and experiences of ordinary Noraid supporters or donors, the question of how Noraid leaders exploited contemporary political circumstances to their benefit remains. An examination of this would be most helpful in explaining Noraid’s rapid rise to prominence out of the abundant, though less popularly supported, organizations that formed throughout the Northern Irish civil rights campaign in the late 1960s.
Writing transnational history raises issues about the level of detail required to explain the historical and political context of at least two separate geographical spaces. Collins does well to explain both the detail and broad context of events in Ireland, and while there are at times very precise facts and figures presented where the sources are available for the Irish American context, this study could nonetheless better link these details into a wider frame and analysis to articulate the greater significance of this research more clearly. That said, Noraid and the Northern Ireland Troubles 1970-1994 is an accessible read, and those unfamiliar with the Northern Irish Troubles, and Irish American involvement in it, will certainly learn a lot from this study.
Sanders, Andrew. The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland 1960-2008. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2019.
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