A cup of tea with lemon sits untouched, growing cool, as the man with the reddish, wavy hair and the civil-service pallor ignores it. Platters of pasta, lobster, shrimp and meat pass by on their way to other diners; Martin Galvin is having none of it. His only meal of the day, he explains, comes at about 10 p.m., when the Fordham-educated lawyer is at home in the Bronx with his wife and 7-year-old son, and his body finally reminds him to eat something. The midday break from his job as a $37,500-a-year hearing officer, deciding disputes involving employees of the New York City Department of Sanitation, is used for something more dear to him than food, a cause that consumes most of his lunch hours, many of his evenings and all of his weekends: getting Great Britain out of Northern Ireland.
This is yet another season of agony in the perennially tortured history of Northern Ireland, and the name of Martin Galvin has now been added to the dramatis personae of “the Troubles.” Galvin, the Irish Republican Army’s most outspoken American supporter, was banned from Northern Ireland because of a speech he gave there last spring that seemed to be an endorsement of terrorism. Last August he defied the ban, dyed his hair and slipped across the border. Soon after one man was killed and dozens of onlookers were injured at a rally in West Belfast when the Royal Ulster Constabulary tried in vain to arrest Galvin as he mounted the speaker’s platform.
That incident, in addition to the IRA’s attempt last month to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a hotel bombing, has once again focused attention on American support for the IRA. Such episodes only strengthen Martin Galvin’s resolve. “Every death that occurs in Ireland is tragic; every aspect of human suffering is tragic,” Galvin says in an even, fluid, well-modulated college debater’s voice, which seems surprisingly calm while discussing such bloody issues. “But it does not surprise me that the IRA should seek to strike at Margaret Thatcher and the British Cabinet as the authors of the violence in Ireland. Margaret Thatcher is regarded in the north of Ireland as responsible for the deaths of Irish people.”
In speeches across the country Galvin attacks the British presence in order to raise money for Irish Northern Aid (NORAID), an organization he serves gratis as publicity director. As he tells it, half the money he collects goes to the widows and families of political prisoners and victims of violence, and the rest goes for educational programs in the U.S. But Michael Flannery, a co-founder of NORAID, has admitted to procuring arms for the IRA.
“I am quite sure that Martin Galvin and Michael Flannery will use any monies collected by them for NORAID for the purchase of arms,” says Alan Huckle, executive director of the British government’s information service. “The IRA is a terrorist organization. There is nothing romantic about NORAID. It is a supporter and an agent of the IRA, which kills people.”
Last September the trawler Marita Ann, with a cargo of guns and ammunition, was seized off the southwest coast of Ireland. Both the Irish and British governments claim that the arms were purchased with American money, although they have no proof of NORAID involvement. Galvin, for his part, insists that all money raised for NORAID is used for alms, not arms—and that the extracurricular activities of people like Flannery are irrelevant to its charitable purpose. “There may be people who are members of Irish Northern Aid—or who are members of the Knights of Columbus or whatever—who feel that they have to do more than just support the families of political prisoners or engage in education.” Besides, argues Galvin, “there has been such scrutiny of Irish Northern Aid by our own government and by other governments that if we were sending over money that was being used for weapons, they would be able to determine it.” In fact, the U.S. Justice Department has ordered NORAID to register as an agent of the Irish Republican Army and has demanded in court that the group issue more detailed reports of where its money comes from and how it is disbursed. The case is still in litigation.
In one sense Galvin’s story is itself a microcosm of the whole sad history of Northern Ireland. As a boy growing up the son of a fireman in Queens, he remembers, he had only a mild interest in Irish history. Then, at 20, he visited the land his grandfather had left 60 years before. On that trip he discovered why his family had emigrated from Ireland: “An English landlord had determined that he could get a higher price from the field that my family farmed to support itself. That decision meant they couldn’t make a living in their own country. This alone is not why I became involved in Irish Northern Aid, but it made me see that this system, which had oppressed members of my own family, is oppressing people today.” Given that view, which extrapolates from past tragedies the present troubles, Galvin’s vision of the future seems guaranteed to be as bloody as all that have gone before.