Once upon a time, the American government worked. Bipartisan agreements made sure laws and budgets were passed, the court system wasn’t overloaded and exhausted and Presidents were kept in check by legislators, rather than the other way round. I know it sounds like a faerie tale in today’s day and age but it is true. People in government once did their jobs. America even had a law on the books that refused support or arms to any country that was designated as a human rights abuser and it could actually take a stand against others in that arena without being a complete laughingstock. To be sure, these embargoes always depended on which lobby had the most influence on the American government at the time, but occasionally the U.S. actually lived up to its own hype. On this day in 1979, the U.S. even stood against one of its biggest allies when it refused to send arms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC) in the North of Ireland on the grounds that the British government was violating the human rights of the citizens who lived there. To say that the powers that be on both sides of the puddle were upset by this stance would be an understatement, but there was no easy way to get around it thanks to Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs.
At its height, the bipartisan Committee for Irish Affairs was incredibly powerful and it boasted over a hundred members, including some of the most well-known politicians in America. Those who disagreed with the committee’s principles or questioned some of its connections still couldn’t publicly denounce the group for fear of losing their Irish constituents, who were a huge voting bloc. The Committee was determined to bring the plight of the Irish into the American spotlight however it could. One of its longest lasting accomplishments was getting the U.S. State Department to include the United Kingdom in its ”Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”. This report listed all foreign nations who were repeatedly accused of violating the human and civil rights of its citizenry and the inclusion of the UK made some in the government very uneasy. This was evident in its reports which were apologetic and overwhelmingly slanted in support of Margaret Thatcher and the British government. This made Irish Americans incredibly angry because the news they were seeing out of the North of Ireland did not match the openly biased accounts that the State Department compiled. The Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs stepped in to demand a more honest account when it came to America’s ally. They kept the pressure on and always looked for ways to bring the subject to light.
They were given a gift in January of 1979 when the State Department approved a license to sell arms to the RUC. This approval gave the committee all it needed to bring the atrocities that had been happening in the north of Ireland to the forefront of American politics. The committee used Sec. 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act to overrule the State Department and block the sale. Section 502B said that the United States was forbidden to give aid to human rights abusers and since the United Kingdom had been included on that list (at the insistence of the Irish committee) the American government would not be allowed to complete the weapons deal or support the British police force in any way. It was a masterful coup and a public display of the power that the Irish American lobby held in Congress. It was also a diplomatic nightmare.
Eight months later on August 2nd, 1979, the sale was formally banned despite the strain it put on America’s relationship with the UK. Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic frantically tried to find a way to appease each other and get out of the political bind they were in. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was furious and the American President, Jimmy Carter, was stuck in the unenviable position of enforcing a law that many of his advisers and governmental agencies were against. Meanwhile, many Irish Americans and Irish Republican organizations in America celebrated the middle finger their voice in Congress had just given to the English and the RUC.
The weapons ban remained in place through Carter’s term and into President Reagan’s as well, but that is not to say that the RUC didn’t receive the arms and supplies they needed. The six thousand guns they ordered before the ban was officially declared were surreptitiously delivered and recently declassified records acknowledge that American weapons, surveillance tools, and other police equipment never really stopped coming into the North of Ireland. They just never came directly from the United States government or in the frequencies and quantities that the authorities in the region would have liked.
Nevertheless, on this day in 1979, the Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs forced the United States to publicly acknowledge the human rights disaster that was unfolding in the North of Ireland. They worked together despite party affiliation and used American laws to prohibit any further cooperation with authorities who were abusing their own citizens, even when they were allies and friends. They refused to send weapons to a police force who would have almost certainly used them against the Irish Nationalist and Republican communities and they made sure the ban stayed in place for years, despite immense pressure from both foreign and domestic agencies. This was no small feat that took a lot of cooperation, fierce determination, and a willingness to enforce the law no matter who disagreed or how loud they complained. The American Congress today could certainly learn a thing or two from its past.