Working towards Irish Unity




Irish in Canada: A St Patrick’s Day message from the diaspora

Gabriel McCaffrey (@gabefin) is an Irish immigrant in Canada and a board member Friends of Sinn Féin Canada.

Gabriel left Ireland in the 1980s during the significant exodus triggered by the economic and political instability that was caused by the policy failures and corruption of the governments of Haughey and Fitzgerald. 

He settled in Canada, becoming an executive in the software industry. He remained concerned with the future of Ireland and actively campaigns in the Irish Diaspora for the end of partition via a border poll, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

In part 1 of this narrative, I recalled some historical context for the Irish in Canada. So where are the Irish Canadians today, who are they, where are they and what is their attitude towards and involvement with contemporary Ireland?

As I mentioned, there have been three significant immigrations of Irish to Canada.

  • The period following An Gorta Mór – 1845-1849, mainly (but not exclusively) comprising Irish Catholics
  • The late 19th Century and continuous between the two world wars and thereafter, mainly Protestants from the North of Ireland, who became a powerful political force in Canada, mainly through the Orange Order
  • The 1950s, the late 1980s, and now again this past 5+ years driven by economic challenges in the 26 counties, and mostly composed of Irish from the 26 counties.

Each of these communities was, more or less, absorbed and assimilated into loyal British Canada, until more recent times. Unlike our neighbours to the south, British Canada had a close affinity and loyalty to the Empire, the Royal Family and to strong anti republican tendencies. These were excited and exacerbated by the Fenian Invasion fears of pre-confederation Canada.

Fenianism and Thomas D’Arcy McGee

The Fenians were a secret society of Irish patriots who had emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Some North American members of this movement were intent on taking Canada by force and exchanging it with Britain for Irish independence. From 1866 to 1871 the Fenians launched a series of small, armed incursions of Canada, each of which was put down by government forces — at the cost of dozens killed and wounded on both sides. There are today, commemorative plaques in various locations near Niagara Falls that remember this period. Unsurprisingly, those who identified with loyal Canada, feared, repudiated, and suppressed and efforts at American Irish Fenianism.

Indeed, one of the most outspoken critics of Fenianism was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, MP. D’Arcy McGee (13 April 1825 – 7 April 1868) was an Irish-Canadian politician, Catholic spokesman, journalist, poet, and a Father of Canadian Confederation. The young McGee was an Irish Catholic who opposed British rule in Ireland, and was part of the Young Ireland attempts to overthrow British rule and create an independent Irish Republic. He escaped arrest and fled to the United States in 1848, where he reversed his political beliefs. 

His future role and political activity in Canada, raises the question if we fully understand his change in allegiance. Irish history is infamous for such Damascene conversions   He became strongly antagonistic to American republicanism and Fenianism. McGee became intensely monarchistic in his political beliefs. He clashed with Fenian ideas and was assassinated by them in 1868 in the centre of Ottawa. 

An Irish immigrant, Patrick J Whelan was convicted at a farcical trial (during which the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A McDonald, an Orangeman, sat beside the judge, no doubt the better to ensure a fair trial). Whelan’s case is dramatised in Pierre Brault’s 1999 play, Blood on the Moon. His solo performance was filmed for a one-hour special on Bravo television. More can be read about this trial here.

The death of McGee polarised the Irish in Canada into two distinct camps, the larger one being concerned with the ramifications of disloyalty in their new country. A retreat from Fenianism ensued in Canada, but the spark of Fenianism in the United States, gave birth to the Easter Rising in Dublin, a fact deliberately forgotten by some contemporary Irish Canadians who laud McGee as a father of Confederation, and seek to distance Irish Canada from rebellious enthusiasm such as the Easter rising and the War of Independence that achieved partial freedom and sovereignty in part of Ireland.

Louis Riel and the Metis 

Another episode in Canadian history that was relevant to Irish immigrants was the Red River resistance under the leadership of Louis Riel. Riel was a Canadian politician, a founder of the province of Manitoba, and a political leader of the Métis (A mixture of French/Indigenous people). He led two resistance movements against the Government of Canada and its first prime minister John A. Macdonald. Riel sought to defend Métis rights and identity as the Northwest Territories came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence.

Riel was the leader of the Red River Resistance of 1869–1870. Following this episode, Riel ultimately negotiated the terms under which the new province of Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation. During the resistance, Riel had a Canadian loyalist, Thomas Scott, executed. Riel soon fled to the United States to escape prosecution. 

In 1884 Métis leaders in Saskatchewan asked Riel to help resolve longstanding grievances with the Canadian central government, which led to armed conflict with government forces: the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Following defeat at the Battle of Batoche, Riel was send to prison and convicted at trial of high treason.

Even despite protests, popular appeals and the jury’s call for clemency in trial, Riel was hanged. He was seen as a heroic victim by French Canadians and his execution had a longlasting negative impact on Canada, polarising the nation along ethno-religious lines. These included Toronto based Orange leaders.

Riel’s historical reputation has been depicted by some as being a fanatic, and by others as being a charismatic leader intent on defending his Métis people from the unfair encroachments by the federal government eager to give Orangemen-dominated Ontario settlers priority access to land. 

Canadian history has been fleetingly referred to here, to give context and flavour to the influence of the Irish (Green and Orange) in Canada, since just before confederation (1867), until the present day.

Irish in Canada by the numbers

When the term Irish in Canada is used here, it means all the Irish. Green, Orange, all different people from all the island. On occasion, politicians here will talk about the five million population in Ireland, when this is actually a reference to only part of Ireland. There are almost seven million people on the island. 

The Census of Canada, as reported by Stats Canada in 2022, shows the following data for people from the British and Irish Islands. The total population is 36.3 million. Hence the total Irish, including from the North is 4,439725. This is 12.2%. The true figure is probably/possibly higher since many orphans adopted into the French Quebec communities after An Gorta Mór became French Canadians, who assimilated their Irish identity into that of Quebecois. All that to say that the Irish identity is a larger part of the population in Canada, than it is in the United States. In some provinces, it is even higher (eg Newfoundland & Labrador 19.7%, New Brunswick is at 20.5%, Nova Scotia at 21.6%).

This Irish identity is reflected every year in St Patrick’s Day events and parades.
Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Day parade dates back to 1824 and is the longest-running Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Canada. St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in Montreal as far back as 1759.

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Irish Political activity in Canada

In 1920 when DeValera was touring the US seeking support and funds (one wonders what the money was used for, in addition to financing the creation of “The Irish Press”, the cornerstone of his family’s legacy), the long fellow studiously avoided Canada. This may have been predicated upon his anxiety as a jailbreaker and hence fugitive, from the UK. Also, however, the American audience of Irish exiles was more supportive of the war of independence than those in Canada. This was true in 1916, when Irish Canadians were more emotionally involved in the War in France than that in Ireland. This remained the case until 1969.

In 1969, all hell broke loose in Belfast and Derry, following years of agitation by the Reverend Ian Paisley and the militant, refashioned, UVF under Gusty Spence. In Divis Street in 1964, Paisley led protests against the presence of an Irish Flag in a window of a republican election candidate in Divis Street. His threat to lead a mob there to remove it resulted in the Unionist government in Stormont sending in the RUC in Riot Squad mode, and the inevitable response occurred. Prime Minister O’Neill labelled the people of the Falls as IRA. 

In 1966, Paisley with his UPV, unleashed violence again on a sectarian basis and in an effort to false flag IRA actions, and getting a response from the government. Killings, bombings and increasing RUC repression ensued. Finally in 1969, the RUC and B-Specials, following a summer of Nationalist protest and loyalist violent activities, unleashed police led riots in Belfast and Derry, resulting in the burning of entire neighbourhoods, the murder of nationalist civilians and the requirement for intervention by the British Military to prevent the police and state from collapse.

In America, there emerged the nascent organization of support, funds, empathy, awareness, political agitation at state and federal levels of political life. In Canada, nothing. This was the Canada of Irish people, assimilated, controlled, acquiescent and subdued to the brutal realties of life, once again, in the occupied part of Ireland.

The events of 1969 gave rise in the USA to significant organization within the Irish diaspora. Indeed, some of those initially in leadership were amongst those who had fled Ireland in the aftermath of the failed War of Independence and the counter-revolution of the Irish Civil War when the most anti-progressive elements of church and state utterly crushed the soldiers who had defended the republic proclaimed in 1916. They and their children recognised the renewed war upon the aspiration for Irish independence and sovereignty, for what it was, and they responded accordingly. Many families in Belfast and elsewhere were grateful for the support hat was sent from America.

The renewed militancy and fervour of this Irish solidarity in the US was noticed by successive Dublin governments and they instigated policies at home of collaboration with the British, and abroad of suppression of alternative viewpoints being heard. For many years, they sent their politicians and key personnel to whisper in the ears of American and Canadian politicians against the republican narrative. Therefore, internment was a necessary sacrifice, Bloody Sunday was a disappointing episode in fraternal British Irish relations that could and would be overcome, RUC/MI6 collusion with Loyalist Killer gangs was a republican propaganda, The Birmingham 6 and the Guilford 4 were not worthy of support. This was the atmosphere that activists had to campaign in.

In 1981 when Bobby Sands led his comrades in a long, harrowing, war of attrition against the British efforts to criminalise the struggle for Irish sovereignty and freedom, with no weapons other than their own emaciated bodies, the Dublin Government cajoled politicians against them. But the Irish in Canada were beginning to mobilize. Demonstrations, protests were being held in different cities and locations across Canada. Many of these people were more recent arrivals but they were finding resonance, interest, and support from the older members of the community who had arrived in the 50s and 60s. 

It cannot be argued more strongly that of all the events in Ireland, which galvanised the Irish community in Canada into action, the Hunger Strike was the key event.

Later when the Adams-Hume dialogue gave rise to the peace process, and despite the best efforts of some politicians and the media in Ireland, this unifying of the Irish Nationalist leadership around core agreed principles, became a spark that became a flame. The core principles included dialogue, equality, justice, and a democratic path to Irish unity. These principles became enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998. 

During the years leading up to the Hume/Adams Peace Process and the GFA, Loyalist organizations continued and accelerated a campaign of random murders of Catholic civilians, targeted assassinations of Sin Fein and other republicans, and efforts to raise tensions by forced marches of Orange bands and lodges through Catholic areas like Garvaghy road.

Canadian politicians and Irish Canadians organized to intervene by visiting such places as Garvaghy road and Drumcree as monitors and observers. These were fact finding missions, and they helped to get the attention focused where it was required, on the marchers with their threats of violence and not the people who were enduring the taunts and threats.

The delegation, made up of members of the Information on Ireland Campaign and the Coalition for Peace in Ireland, were in Ireland as observers to events over the Drumcree and Twelfth period. They were invited by the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition and the Lower Ormeau Concerned Community. The group also met Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, West Belfast community groups, representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party, the NIO, RUC and George Patton of the Orange Order. 

This group included Sid Ryan, Former President Ontario Federation of Labour and Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario,  then Liberal MP Warren Allmand (later Solicitor General of Canada) and Bloc Quebecois MP Daniel Turp. 

Also there was the great Irish Canadian republican and activist, Georges Beriault, a member of the board of FoSFC. They were on Garvaghy Rd. & Lower Ormeau Road in 1997 during the stand off of the Orange Order, as part of an independent Canadian observer team when he was one of many injured by the RUC on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.

Of their meeting with RUC Chief Ronnie Flanagan, Beriault said:  “He accused Warren Allmand, former Canadian Solicitor General, of being non-independent and challenged statements he made in the press about the behaviour of the RUC. In fact, he said Allmand left a false impression of the Garvaghy Road operation in the media. I would describe Flanagan as being aggressive and impolite.”

Again, Canadian politicians enabled other interventions to assist the GFA in it’s difficult challenges, and a Canadian Judge Peter Corry.

Justice Cory, who served on the Supreme Court of Canada from 1989 to 1999, was appointed in 2001 under an agreement between the Irish and British governments to investigate six cases in which there was suspected collusion between security forces and paramilitaries.

Four of the cases, including the 1989 killing of solicitor Pat Finucane, involved suspected collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

In his final reports, Justice Cory recommended public inquiries into five of the six cases. The UK government subsequently held inquiries into four of those cases. Despite the continuing efforts by the UK government (especially since Brexit) to ignore, confuse, rewrite, and destroy the core principles of the GFA, there is unparalleled magnanimous support for the agreement, and a vote of the Irish people that underlines it.

Canada’s federal parliament promulgated March as Ireland Heritage Month in Canada from 2021 forward. This motion was widely supported, cross party and was put forward by James Maloney MP. Other MPs from both the government party and others spoke of their Irish heritage and supported the motion. Chandra Arya, MP, as mentioned in part 1 of this series, also has expressed his pleasure at the recent appointment of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister in the North of Ireland. Many other MPs, including Charles Angus MP (NDP), Stephane Bergeron MP (Bloc Québécois) are and have been great supporters of Irish Unity and actively support efforts by Irish Canadians on this issue.

On Dec. 8, 2020, the Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a motion that the Canada-UK trade agreement be consistent with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. This helps create a scenario that if the UK wishes to have a Fre Trade Agreement with Canada, they cannot do so while putting aside any terms of the GFA that could be violated.

In Canada today, these are the issues around which activists for Irish Unity, sovereignty, and freedom, currently campaign. None of the above successes at the Canadian political level could have been accomplished without campaigning and activism. Foremost amongst such activists are Friends of Sinn Féin Canada (FoSFC). This author is a member of the board of Friends of Sinn Féin Canada (FoSFC), but this article is written in a personal capacity and is not an FoSFC statement.

Today there are various organizations in Ireland that are campaigning for Irish Unity and the border poll that was promised within the terms of the GFA. These include, “IRELANDS FUTURE,” “Irish Border Poll” and Sinn Féin. In Canada, the effort is led by FoSFC, with support from diverse Canadian politicians, trade union leaders, and cultural/sporting leaders.

In a column by Tom Collins in THE IRISH NEWS on March 12, he lays out an especially important concern. He writes, “It is the responsibility of the Irish government to prepare the ground and to be explicit about what unity means – politically, economically, socially, and culturally. Promises of a brighter future must be underwritten by hard evidence. Facts, figures, the fine details.”

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Last week, and during the coming days, various Irish Politicians are visiting multiple countries including Canada. The diaspora in Canada, is being visited this year by An Tanaiste, Micheal Martín. These ministerial visits, courtesy of the Irish taxpayer, will hear (if past history is a guide) lots about the Canada Ireland relationship, membership of CETA (Canada Europe Free Trade agreement) but little or nothing about the aspiration for Irish unity. Indeed, with all due respect, and past evidence, the last thing that these politicians want to do is to raise any interest in, or hope for, the GFA promised border poll or any discussion involving diverse elements of society that could discuss, debate, and agree on what a new Ireland might look like. 

In contrast, one political party has consistently been sending their representatives to Canada, to engage with both the diaspora population, and Canadian politicians, to advance, promote and to build awareness and support for both a border poll and the necessary groundwork that needs to be undertaken to obtain the desired outcome. There is no prize for guessing which one. This is not written as a partisan polemic, but rather as a sad refection of the lack of enthusiasm by any of the political parties in Ireland (other than that one) for a future Ireland of equals, after a border poll.

Why is this the case? Could it be that those with a personal stake in maintaining the status quo are terrified at the thought of change? One certainly hopes so, because change is coming, whether they wish it or not. The GFA was all about change. We see some of the fruits of this change, slowly but surely as the demographics in the North have changed, and as the tolerance of the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael historical carve up of power in the 26 counties, has reached breaking point.

In these past few years, we have had multiple visits to Canada (not financed by Irish Taxpayers) by John Finucane MP, Conor Murphy, MLA, Louise O’Reilly, TD, Mickey Brady MP, and others, as part of a series of events under the theme of “Irish Unity Roadshow.” They have spoken to meetings of the Irish community in Canada, and to Canadian politicians to build the awareness and support of the people here to support Irish Unity. All these visits were arranged by FoSFC.

The days ahead are promising, some changes may happen more slowly than we sometimes would like (eg The changes at Stormont with a Sinn Féin First Minister) but they are and will happen. We in the Irish diaspora in Canada, will play our part.

Data/excerpts from Stats Canada, Immigration Canada, Census Canada, Wikipedia, Irish News, etc.