Drawing on two confidential reports, this article demonstrates the significant political agency exercised in the 1980s by Irish and Irish American politicians supported by an unusually robust form of ethnicity. Embodied in hundreds of cultural and fraternal associations, this vigorous Irish American ethnicity was animated by political passion arising out of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The first report, by the Irish Embassy in Washington in 1980, provided first-hand accounts of the widespread activities of Irish American associations, with a view to enlisting their support in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland. The embassy and Irish American political leaders formed a powerful “Irish lobby” in Washington seeking a solution based on nonviolence and equality between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists, strengthening the hand of the Irish government in its negotiations with the British government. The second report, compiled in 1988 by Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, sought to bring the Irish American republican movement into line with Sinn Féin’s recent decision to seek a political solution to the conflict. As Sinn Féin moved gradually away from violence, it exerted control over Noraid, the most important of the hardline Irish American organizations. Both the Irish government and Sinn Féin mobilized an Irish American ethnicity that, far from being merely “symbolic,” was rooted in tangible social and political processes in which Irish immigrants and their descendants played the leading role. Whether that ethnicity can retain its vitality in the absence of continued immigration and an animating political cause is an open question.

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