In his new book, “Peacerunner: The True Story of how an ex-Congressman helped End the Centuries of War in Ireland,” Penn Rhodeen tells the story of former Congressman Bruce Morrison, and his vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Below is an extract from the book entitled "First Journey to Ireland."
You can read an interview with Bruce Morrison about the book here.
Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland
One policeman studied the passport while two of the others aimed their assault rifles straight at the American standing no more than six feet away, facing them. His passport was the special type issued to members of Congress, but in this moment, there didn’t seem to be anything special about it. The congressman, Bruce Morrison of Connecticut, made matters worse when he pulled out his notepad and started writing down the identification number of the cop holding his passport. But Morrison couldn’t help himself: He’d been a legal aid lawyer, and collecting identification information was instinctive. The cop grabbed the pad and shouted, “What are you doing?”
“I’m taking down your number.”
“That’s an offense, collecting information about the security forces!”
“I thought that’s what the numbers are for.”
For Gerry O’Hara, Morrison’s host in Derry, being held at gun -point wasn’t a new experience. He watched the exchange, guns on him, too, with a mixture of amusement and alarm that he knew to keep to himself. O’Hara was an official of the Irish political party Sinn Féin, invariably described as the political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA). Because the IRA had been waging a violent campaign for Irish unification since the early twentieth century, Sinn Féin had been classified as a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States.
O’Hara, whose insistence that the police use his Irish name, Gearóid O hEára, annoyed them to no end, knew that his Sinn Féin involvement was the reason he and his guests were in this mess. He’d been through it hundreds of times, often facing several stops in a single day. Although he knew from past experience that the cops weren’t likely to open fire, he was still concerned that Morrison, glaringly inexperienced with police in Northern Ireland, might inadvertently escalate the situation.
“I remember thinking, ‘You don’t know what you’re dealing with,’” O’Hara later recalled, adding with a bit of wistfulness that Morrison was “only doing what you would do in a normal society.”
But in 1987, Northern Ireland was anything but a normal society. The British army had occupied it since the early years of the Troubles, the tense and violent time that began in the late 1960s, when increasingly assertive Catholics began demanding an end to the pervasive
discrimination against them in all realms of life, including abuses by the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (known as the RUC). For more than two decades, the IRA had been engaged in guerilla warfare with the British army, the RUC, and various loyalist paramilitary organizations, all of which reciprocated in full, violent kind. In the July before Morrison’s arrival, there had been six killings. The toll for the year would reach nearly a hundred—thirty-nine of them civilians. In such a small country, the effect was profound and terrible: No one felt safe. Violent death could come at any moment.
The RUC, known for its rough treatment of Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, seemed more like an army than a local police force. Its men aggressively patrolled the streets in armored Land Rovers and British Saracen personnel carriers, wielding British army weapons and often decked out in full riot gear.
Morrison had never been to Ireland before, though he’d been in Chile on congressional human rights business and had witnessed how the notorious Pinochet dictatorship imposed its military and police presence on civilian life. In his travels through Northern Ireland, he found the military and police presence in everyday life to be even more oppressive than under Chile’s military dictator.
Before the RUC stopped them, O’Hara was giving Morrison and Dennis Prebensen, an American supporter of Irish unification who had invited his congressman to Northern Ireland, a tour of his city.
Because it was his town, O’Hara was at the wheel. He knew that a car with plates from the Republic of Ireland, driven by a local Sinn Féin official and carrying two strangers, could well provoke a police stop. He’d warned his passengers of that possibility and told them that if they did get stopped, they’d follow the standard protocol Sinn Féin had devised to avoid being detained and maybe sent seventy-five miles away to the Castlereagh Holding Centre in East Belfast. “We’d realized,” O’Hara later explained, “that the pretext for taking you off to some army barracks for three or four hours was that they needed to search the car. So we developed a tactic of saying, ‘Well, if you want to search the car, there’s the keys—let me know when you’re finished,’ and we would walk off.”
For his part, Morrison assumed that O’Hara’s warnings about getting stopped were exaggerated. He told himself, “It’s Gerry’s job to tell the American congressman how awful it is. This isn’t going to happen.” So he was genuinely shocked when things turned bad.
The men were driving on Queen’s Quay, a major street running alongside the River Foyle. They were headed through the warehouse district toward Guild Hall, an ornate Victorian symbol of the British Empire and therefore a constant provocation to the Irish. Suddenly it happened, all in a blur: armored Land Rovers, a Saracen troop carrier, O’Hara jamming on the brakes. Memories differ on the precise sequence of the events leading to the stop, but what happened next remains clear to all three: About a dozen heavily armed police piled out, shouting and gesturing angrily as they surrounded the car and rousted the men out. Some were dressed like conventional police, but others looked ready for combat, with helmets, bulletproof vests, and fatigue pants tucked into their boots. Assault rifles were fixed on the captives.
O’Hara, who had been forced facedown over the front of the car, was the reason for the stop. “What are you doing with a terrorist scumbag like him?” one of the cops shouted at the Americans. As more questions came flying at Morrison, O’Hara assumed the role of his guest’s lawyer, yelling, “You don’t have to answer!” This, of course, made the cops even angrier.
The police searched the car, and when they found Prebensen’s stash of books on Irish history and republican heroes, they didn’t hold back their contempt. After they were done with the car, their activity and questions ebbed a bit, but their rifles remained high. It wasn’t clear that they had any specific objective beyond harassing O’Hara and whoever had the bad judgment to ride with him.
O’Hara—who at seventeen had been in the midst of the 1972 Bloody Sunday Massacre, in which British paratroopers shot and killed fourteen unarmed demonstrators in Derry, including O’Hara’s close friend Gerry Donaghy, also just seventeen—remained convinced that an actual shooting was unlikely. Morrison felt protected by his office, confident that the British government wasn’t about to shoot a member of the US Congress. If he’d realized that the police holding him had
no idea what a congressman was, he might have worried a little more.
As time passed, Morrison had the feeling that the police “didn’t seem to have anywhere to go, and whether we had anywhere to go was of no interest to them.” In truth, O’Hara and the Americans weren’t on a tight schedule. Morrison and Prebensen had arrived in Derry a day or two earlier and were staying at O’Hara’s home. This outing was supposed to be a relaxed tour of Derry from a Sinn Féin point of view. Morrison had already taken other tours; in order to get a full picture of the situation, he had asked the American consulate to recommended an itinerary. He’d also taken a tour with John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), which was made up of moderate Catholics who opposed violence and focused on economic development as a key to progress.
The differences in viewpoints were revealing and sometimes amusing. Hume, for example, had proudly shown the Americans a housing estate he’d helped get built. When O’Hara took them to the same estate, his message was quite different.
“See how they designed the streets?” O’Hara asked. “That’s so the tanks can come in.” Indeed, O’Hara never let up. When Morrison said the situation was complicated, O’Hara snapped, “It’s not complicated: Brits out!”
Still at gunpoint, Morrison thought about how this situation would play out back home. He found it interesting that all three of them were being held so close together along the fence by the river. “It wasn’t like Gerry was separated as the Sinn Féin guy—the presumptive terrorist—and Dennis and I were told to sit in the car, which would have been the American version. This had a very different flavor—like we were all in the company of a terrorist and we were all gonna to be investigated.”
After ten or fifteen minutes passed, another officer, older and clearly of a higher rank, appeared on the scene. He spoke with the RUC men and examined the papers they’d collected. O’Hara watched him as he studied Morrison’s passport; it was clear to O’Hara that this officer knew exactly who he was dealing with and that he understood that “he had an international incident on his hands.” But the new arrival never spoke to the detainees.
There was still plenty of time for Morrison to take the strange situation in. That it wasn’t happening on some blasted out street late at night, as was so often shown on television, but instead near the handsome center of the city on a bright summer morning, made it all the more bizarre. He noticed pedestrians on the river side of Queen’s Quay crossing over to the other side as soon as they spotted the scene ahead and only crossing back when they were well clear of it. Three men were being held at gunpoint—maybe a new experience for them, maybe not—but everyday life was still going on, with a few minor adjustments.
There was nothing in Morrison’s background that should have involved him in this centuries-old Irish mess. He had been adopted at birth and had no way of knowing how Irish he might be. His adoptive parents—a Con Ed executive and a librarian—were Lutherans. They’d raised him in Northport, a pleasant town on the north shore of Long Island. He went to MIT, graduated in three years, and then got a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Illinois. Along the way he realized that he was “more interested in working with people than molecules,” so he entered Yale Law School in the class of 1973; Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were classmates. After graduation, he worked as a staff lawyer for New Haven Legal Assistance Association, which provided lawyers to the poor, and within a couple of years became director of the program.
After the first year of the Reagan presidency, Morrison felt there were more urgent things to do than head legal aid, so he decided to run for Congress. Since he was a political nobody, it would be uphill all the way. First he had to beat the president of the New Haven Board of Aldermen, who was widely seen as the prohibitive favorite, for the Democratic nomination. Then he had to beat the popular Republican incumbent. In a general election campaign marked by terrific energy, a clear position on protecting Social Security, edgy and inspired advertising, and the failure of the incumbent to recognize the strengths of his upstart challenger, Morrison won by less than one percent of the votes cast.
Morrison had an abiding interest in human rights issues, but no special focus on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Soon after he was sworn in, however, he learned that all new members of Congress with significant Irish American constituencies had to decide whether to join Friends of Ireland, the established vehicle for expressing general support and affection for Ireland, or the less genteel Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, which wanted Irish unification—getting the six counties of Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into a 32-county Republic of Ireland.
Friends of Ireland avoided controversy; its major concerns seemed to revolve around St. Patrick’s Day. It was headed by Irishman Thomas Foley, the House Democratic whip. Foley was no friend of Sinn Féin; when it came to Northern Ireland, his sympathies lay with the British position. He abhorred the IRA and anyone who seemed to have the remotest sympathy for their cause. Even when the Irish Peace Process finally began to gather steam in the mid-1990s, Foley, by then Speaker of the House of Representatives, remained determined to keep Sinn Féin away from the negotiating table.
The Ad Hoc Committee was headed by Mario Biaggi of New York, who was decidedly not Irish but had a huge Irish American constituency in the Bronx and, as a former New York City police officer, strong support from the city’s legions of Irish American cops. The Ad
Hoc Committee didn’t merely favor a united Ireland politically: Several of its members had close ties with supporters of Irish Northern Aid (Noraid), an American group that aggressively sought funds for the republican cause in Northern Ireland. While Noraid insisted the money was collected to help widows and orphans of fallen IRA heroes, the authorities claimed it was being used for IRA guns and bombs.
Morrison was advised by his staff to join Friends of Ireland, and he did so. But before long, he came to feel that it wasn’t the group for him. He had a general awareness of the situation in Ireland and, although he didn’t have fully formed views on it, he was more interested in substantive issues than Irish celebrations. He didn’t favor the more extreme pro-IRA views of some members of the Ad Hoc Committee, but the group’s willingness to engage with serious issues impressed him.
He hadn’t yet committed to switching over when a man named Richard Lawlor asked to meet with him. Morrison’s staff was alarmed: “You can’t meet with this guy. He’s a terrorist.” Morrison met with him anyway. Lawlor, a Hartford lawyer and a former Connecticut state representative, was the national vice chairman of Noraid. He was willing to press the case for a united Ireland anytime, anywhere, and he did it well. Lawlor argued to the new congressman that the Catholics in Northern Ireland were being subjected to terrible discrimination in employment, housing, and all other major spheres of public life, as well as widespread deprivations of civil rights and unrelenting abuse by the RUC.
As they talked, Morrison didn’t think he was dealing with a terrorist. He felt that many of Lawlor’s points were worth exploring from a human rights perspective. Lawlor urged him to join the Ad Hoc Committee, and in time he did so. He was happier tackling serious questions instead of wondering which green tie to wear on St. Patrick’s Day.
It had been a good twenty minutes since the higher ranking officer arrived at the Derry standoff. The car from the Republic sat empty in the roadway. Things seemed stalled. Morrison, O’Hara, and Prebensen stayed still, backs to the river, guns still pointed at them. Morrison remembers one of the rifles aimed directly at his knee, a visual echo of the IRA practice of kneecapping: crippling lesser targets with a bullet to the knee.
And then, like a sudden summer shower, it was over. Keys and papers were handed back. There was no explanation and, of course, no apology. The police piled back into their vehicles; as suddenly as they’d appeared, they vanished.
Life carried on as if none of it had ever happened. The wide River Foyle, glistening in the August light, rolled on in its stately way to the Atlantic Ocean. Pedestrians walked freely alongside Queen’s Quay, the path ahead unimpeded by any unpleasantness. It was nearly lunchtime.
When Morrison got back to the United States a few days later, he called a press conference at the state capitol in Hartford. He told reporters: “Northern Ireland strikes you on first impression as a police state.” He described himself as a strong supporter of a united Ireland, adding that he would push for relaxing visa restrictions on Irish republican leaders so that Americans could hear different viewpoints. “What we hear in the United States comes to us from a British perspective,” he
said. He denounced the discrimination and abuse and called for efforts to improve economic conditions in Northern Ireland.
Back in Congress, he got more involved in Irish issues and became co-chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee. He offered colleagues his impressions of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, whom he had met with in Belfast. Although many were certain that Adams was IRA to the core, Morrison’s impression was different: “This is a politician. This isn’t a general. This man—his skills, his focus, his way of thinking—is political. He’s a political organizer. I recognize this person.”
Morrison described his experience in Derry as “radicalizing,” which at first took the form of support for the cause of a united Ireland. In time, that radicalization developed into something broader and deeper: an unwavering determination to do everything he could to help make peace. He would go on to dedicate untold hours, travel endless miles, and seek out support from anyone—American, Irish or British, Catholic or Protestant—who could help advance the prospects for peace. He brought to bear every aspect of his political know-how and intellectual firepower, and he did it with remarkably little ego. In short, he became a radical seeker of peace in Northern Ireland.
Morrison would return to Northern Ireland many times in the coming years and would play a crucial role in the long chain of events that would eventually lead to peace. But as the 1980s drew to a close, his focus was on two enormous projects at home. In Connecticut, instead of running for re-election to Congress in 1990, he would run for governor. And in Washington, he would lead a major overhaul of the immigration laws. Both projects would, in very different and sometimes surprising ways, help him make good on his determination to seek peace in Northern Ireland.
You can purchase “Peacerunner: The True Story of how an ex-Congressman helped End the Centuries of War in Ireland” and read the remarkable story of Bruce Morrison and the journey towards the Northern Ireland peace process here.