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March 17, 2007

Roy McCann - Irish Cause Burns Bright for Inland Activist

Frank Bellino / The Press-Enterprise The 1981 hunger strikes by Irish Republican Army prisoners led Roy McCann and others to see the ballot box as an answer for their cause, uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Irish Cause Burns Bright For Inland Activist

08:33 AM PDT on Saturday, March 17, 2007
By Tim O'Leary
The Press-Enterprise

FRENCH VALLEY - Roy McCann is still fighting the same war that he
waged 30 years ago. But different weapons are in play today, with
compromise and conciliation replacing bullets, bottles and bombs
in Northern Ireland.

Brooding Belfast seems a universe away from sun-splashed Southern
California. Yet, McCann somehow connects the two.

It was in Belfast that McCann was arrested twice as a stone-
hurling teenager, a man-child on the verge of enlisting in the
Irish Republican Army. His aunt was killed by an errant bomb. He
spoke the language of the streets, where the British military
patrolled, clandestine paramilitary units clashed and trash-can
lids were used to communicate in a staccato code.

It is in Southern California that McCann serves his cause now,
spending countless hours as a conduit between America and
Northern Ireland on the side of the predominately Catholic
Nationalist movement, which favors unification with the Republic
of Ireland to the south.

On the other side are the predominately Protestant Unionists, who
want Northern Ireland to stay as it is, a part of the United

Unionist leaders either could not be reached or declined comment
on McCann's role with Irish Northern Aid.

McCann makes his living selling real estate. His wife, Anne, is
an elementary-school teacher. Their sons, ages 10 and 14, play
baseball. The teapot is quick to sing in their spacious two-story
home in fast-growing French Valley.

McCann also is the publicity director and executive board member
for Irish Northern Aid, which formed 36 years ago to propel
efforts to reunify a country that was torn in two in 1921.

McCann, 44, is also the chief organizer for the nonprofit group's
three Southern California "units," which are membership hubs that
work to raise awareness and money in what has become a push-and-
pull political struggle that must finally find a path to peace in
Northern Ireland. He hopes to achieve that goal so his sons will
never see war on their father's soil.

"It has raged so long," McCann said. "You have to make peace with
your enemies."

Information, Coordination

As an unpaid coordinator of Northern Irish Aid "units" based in
San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, McCann has brought in
Irish political leaders to speak to local groups.

He circulates updates on Northern Ireland referendums and
political issues. He also helps plan parades, commemorative
dinners and other cultural activities.

In September 2005, McCann coordinated a San Diego speech by
Martin McGuinness, a two-term Ulster representative of the
Northern Ireland Parliament. McGuinness is also active with Sinn
Fein, the political wing of the IRA that seeks to separate
Northern Ireland from Britain and join it with the Republic of

In November, McCann coordinated the San Diego speech of Thomas
O'Reilly, who represents two Northern Ireland regions in that
country's Assembly. O'Reilly's speech focused in part on "the
campaign for a united Ireland," according to materials
distributed by McCann.

McCann and his family typically invite the Irish visitors to stay
in their home prior to their speeches and other functions.

By coordinating regional group activities, McCann has kept Irish-
Americans and others informed on the political nuances of the IRA
relinquishing its weapons, power-sharing elections in Northern
Ireland and a growing debate over the region's future. His
Southern California chapters are seen as key posts in a group
that is uniquely American and operates in 40 states.

'A Very Good Man for Us'

"Roy's a very good man for us, and he's very supportive of a
united Ireland," Paul Doris, the group's Philadelphia-based
national chairman, said in a telephone interview. "He's very easy
to get along with, and he's a very good leader."

Yet McCann is an anomaly because about 85 percent of the group's
organizers and members are American, not Irish transplants, Doris
said. It is the taste of war that distinguishes McCann from other
stateside activists, Doris noted.

"Roy is one of just a few who has come from Ireland and continues
to work on the Irish question," Doris said. "He did come from
Belfast, and he did see it (the war) firsthand, so that carries a
lot of weight, too."

Decades of Strife

Ireland was partitioned in 1921 after the ratification of a
treaty that ended a long conflict between Britain and Ireland.
The partition created two territories on the island. The 26
southern counties formed the Irish Free State, which later became
a republic. The six northern counties remained part of the United

Decades of guerilla war and terrorist acts on both sides followed
despite efforts to outlaw the IRA.

A seminal event in modern Irish history came in 1981 when nearly
two-dozen prisoners in Northern Ireland jails participated in a
hunger strike. Ten of those prisoners starved themselves to death
in hunger strikes that lasted from 46 to 71 days.

The hunger strikes came at a time of assassinations carried out
by both sides. The global outcry that followed the hunger strikes
helped spur a shift in strategy for Irish-unification advocates.
McCann and other activists began to see the ballot box as the
route to change rather than sectarian violence.

A constant reminder of those deaths, which occurred six years
before McCann emigrated to San Diego, hangs in a hallway of his
home. An Irish drum is decorated with the faces of those
"martyrs" of the unification cause.

McCann said it is the memory of those deaths, along with the
decades of strife that he witnessed in Belfast, that have kept
him committed to the Irish cause. And abandoning violence has
opened the door for dialogue aimed at finding political solutions
to centuries-old problems and prejudices, he said.

'OK to Talk About the War'

"It seems like there's a new willingness to look at the conflict
and think about it today," he said. "It's almost like it's OK to
talk about the war now that the bombs and bullets aren't going
off anymore. We're just facilitators here for the Republican
movement so that the message gets heard. You do it for a love of
your country. "

But McCann cautions that he can't talk about the cause when he is
supposed to be working. Going off on a partisan tangent at the
wrong time can bring a rebuke from his wife, who is also an Irish

"My wife said that if I concentrated as much on selling real
estate as I do Northern Irish Aid, we would be millionaires," he

Reach Tim O'Leary at 951-375-3733 or

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