Ben Gilman, for many years a republican member of the House of Representatives, and one of the most active Congress members on issues of Irish American concern, has died aged 94.
Gilman retired from Congress in 2002, but left behind a record on Irish issues virtually unmatched by another house member, Republican or Democrat.
Gilman’s interest in Ireland was given extra prominence by virtue of his chairmanship of the House International Relations Committee (today the Foreign Affairs Committee).
It was also spurred by the many Irish voters in his New York congressional district which, before redistricting persuaded him to retire, was splashed across Rockland, Orange, Sullivan and Westchester counties.
A World War II veteran, Gilman spend his final days in a veterans’ hospital in New York’s Dutchess County.
As a member of the U.S. Army Air Force Gilman he took part in 35 bombing missions over Japan. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“I am deeply sorry about the death of my dear friend, the great Ben Gilman. May God rest his noble Jewish-American soul,” said Fr. Sean McManus, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Irish National Caucus and who worked closely with Congressman Gilman on Irish issues down the years.
Said McManus by way of tribute: “Ben was a fervent advocate for Irish justice and peace, more than any other member of Congress in U.S. history.
He tackled the real issues that Congress could rightly address. And more than any other congressman, he worked closely with me to ensure a great congressional injustice and cover-up would be ended — the banning of congressional Hearings on human rights in Northern Ireland.
Added McManus in part: “On October 9, 1973 — just over a year after I arrived in the United State, I arranged my first congressional hearing.
“It caused deep concern in both the Irish and British embassies. After that, congressional hearings were, in effect, banned for over twenty years with the explicit collusion of big name Irish-Catholic members of Congress.
“But when the great Ben Gilman became the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, one of his first actions was to keep his long-time promise to me: that he would hold congressional hearings….to get the MacBride Principles passed into U.S. law. A
“And that hearing would soon be followed by another hearing on yet another key issue -exposing the RUC and the need for an acceptable police for the North.
“A Jewish-American congressman came to the rescue, broke the ban on congressional hearings and got the United States Congress to officially stand up for Irish justice and peace. God rest the great Ben Gilman. May his name live forever in Irish history.”
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams also expressed his condolences.
“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of long -time friend of Ireland and New York congressman Ben Gilman,” said Adams.
“In his 30 years as a Republican congressman, Ben Gilman represented constituencies that included Rockland and Orange counties, which have large Irish American communities.
“As chair of the International Relations Committee from 1995, Ben Gilman was very active in support of the Irish Peace Process and was highly vocal in his condemnation of the RUC and the need for dramatic change.
“He visited Ireland often, including as an observer at non-jury Diplock trials and at contentious Orange marches, including the Garvaghy Road.
“Ben Gilman was a respected and popular figure among New York Irish Americans for his work on Ireland.
“On Capitol Hill, Ben Gilman epitomized the bi-partisan approach of Congress to the Irish Peace Process, which was one of its strengths. He was one of the main proponents of it.
“On behalf of Sinn Féin, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to his wife Georgia, his family, and friends.”
After retiring from Congress, fellow Republican congressman Peter King paid tribute to his House colleague saying Gilman’s departure from Washington would be a severe blow to the Irish-American community and to the issues the community considered vital.
“Ben was in many ways the unsung hero of the ’90s,” King said in a 2002 statement.
“He was doing in the House (of Representatives) what Clinton was doing in the White House. His leaving will have a real impact.
“In one particular sense, because of his being a Jewish congressman, Ben was particularly effective because he was able to get around the kind of stereotyping that labels Northern Ireland as being just an Irish-Catholic issue.”
After his retirement, several members of Congress wrote to President George W. Bush recommending Gilman for the post of U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, but that initiative never came to fruition.
This article first appeared in the Irish Echo. For more, visit their website here.