A spate of gunrunning trials and hullabaloo over this year's St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City have brought the ''Irish connection'' back into the public eye.
Michael Flannery, an Irish-American with longstanding ties to the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA), last month was elected grand marshal of New York City's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade by the parade's organizers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Andrew Duggan, elected as an aide to the grand marshal, and four other men are standing trial in New York for allegedly negotiating to purchase five Red-Eye surface-to-air missiles, several M-14s, M-18s, and Soviet-made AK-18 semi-automatic rifles from an undercover FBI agent posing as an arms dealer. Presumably, the weapons were destined for Northern Ireland, where the IRA is waging a violent campaign to end British rule.
In addition, four related trials in New York are expected to begin this month.
The choice of Mr. Flannery to lead the parade, however, is at the center of the current political storm.
The 81-year-old Flannery is a founder of the Irish Northern Aid Committee, known as Noraid. Noraid ostensibly sends money to help the widows and families of some 1,500 interned members of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Although Noraid registered in the US under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1971, a federal judge ruled in 1981 that Noraid is an agent of the Provisional IRA.
Flannery and four other naturalized Irish-Americans were acquitted last November of conspiring to smuggle 47 machine guns, a 20mm. cannon, a flame thrower, 12 Russian AK-47 assault rifles, and ammunition to the IRA. Flannery objects to charges that he is a gunrunner.
''I was never a gunrunner in my life,'' he says. ''Not that I didn't give those who were successful in doing so my blessing if I could, if that helped them in any way.''
Some of the defendants in this ''Freedom Five'' case admitted they bought the guns. But they pleaded not guilty, saying they thought the arms dealer (previously convicted on a gun charge) was helping the US Central Intelligence Agency monitor the flow of guns to Northern Ireland - ostensibly to prevent the IRA from turning to the Soviets for weapons. The CIA denied any involvement. The jury acquitted the five.
That was in November. But this winter's fracas over Flannery's participation in the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the current court cases are just the tip of the iceberg.
The IRA is bent on driving the British out of Northern Ireland by force. The British government says it must stay to protect the Protestant majority in Ulster who wish to remain a part of Britain. The British also maintain that if they left, a bloody civil war would break out in the province.
The weapons used by the IRA to fight the British appear to have come from a source of steady supply during the last 10 years: the United States. Of the more than 10,000 guns seized by the British in Northern Ireland since 1972, at least one-quarter have been manufactured in the US. And British sources estimate 90 percent of the modern guns in the IRA's armory - if not American made - have at least been sent from this country. In that same 10-year period, US court cases involving more than 30 Irish-Americans have resulted in almost 20 convictions on charges of illegal arms purchases and smuggling to the IRA.
Meanwhile, Noraid has raised more than $1.5 million in major US cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, which have large Irish-American populations. The money is collected in bars, at dinners, parties, and dances. Figures for last year have not been released on advice of Noraid's lawyers, but Noraid spokesman Martin Galvin says more than $150,000 has come in during the last six months.
Noraid says the money goes to widows and families of the IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland. The money goes through An Cumann Cabhrachm, (Society of Help) in Dublin, and is administered by ''mostly rather elderly housewives,'' Flannery says.
In Belfast, the money is distributed by the Green Cross Committee from its office in the predominantly Roman Catholic Falls Road area of the city.
While in the past Noraid has claimed all of its money went to Northern Ireland, about 30 percent of the money now is used for publicity in the US to make more Americans aware of the situation in Northern Ireland, according to Mr. Galvin.
A separate Irish-American Defense Fund was set up to cover legal expenses of the five trials - involving nine defendants - now pending.
Noraid's Galvin says more than $50,000 was raised for the ''Freedom Five,'' which covered the cost of the trials, expenses for defendants' families, and publicity. As in almost all these cases, actual legal services have been donated. Even sophisticated jury research was conducted free of charge by Cathy Bennet, a Houston jury consultant. (The Daily Mail of London estimated the total cost of the research would have been $200,000). Galvin expects expenses for the coming trials to be in excess of $100,000.
The political disturbance over Flannery's choice as grand marshal for the St. Patrick's Day Parade grows and a propaganda war intensifies. The key question raised is how closely the group that elected Flannery represents the sentiments of Irish-Americans in New York and of the some 40 million Irish-Americans across the country.
Flannery, who says ''the whole thing is getting out of hand,'' estimates 90 percent of the Irish-Americans that will be marching are behind him.
''Everyone is sayin' that it's an Irish Republican Army idea and all this sort of thing. It has nothing to do with it,'' Flannery says in his Irish brogue.
But, he adds, ''If the national aspect [of the St. Patrick's Day observances] would override the respect that we're payin' to our patron saint, it's something that I can't help very much, but I'm not at all taken aback by it because it's terrific propaganda for us.
''To tell you the truth,'' Flannery continues, making no bones about his support for the IRA, ''my opinion is getting guns over to the Irish Republican Army is a very good thing. [George] Washington had to do the same thing when he was in revolt here against the same enemy.''
''I'm a pacifist by nature, as I told 'em in the court case, but I do believe that peace is worth fighting for and dying for if necessary,'' Flannery says. ''History records that there's one way of gettin' freedom and that's by violence.''
Michael Collins, spokesman for the Irish Consulate in New York City, says, ''We seriously doubt whether the St. Patrick's Day committee, which is given responsiblity for selecting the grand marshal and for organizing the parade, is in any sense representational. We do not believe that the vast proportion of Irish-Americans support the activities of Noraid or support the activities of Mr. Flannery.''
The Irish government and its agencies will not participate in this year's parade.
Several prominent New York politicians, including Mayor Edward I. Koch, have said they would take part in the parade, but not in support of the Provisional IRA. On the other hand, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York and former Gov. Hugh L. Carey say they will not attend.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwiling, says so far there is no reason to believe Terrence Cardinal Cook won't be with Flannery on the parade's reviewing stand. But he is still ''waiting for the cardinal to make a decision. You don't come up with a decision in a matter of days. . . . He is trying to figure out what his presence would mean.''