A dark hotel bar in Dublin. Just after Christmas, 1992. Niall O’Dowd was new to the secret agent game — and more than a little awkward at it.
It was an odd and audacious undertaking: An Irish-born journalist who had become a U.S. citizen after illegally overstaying his student visa was now working quietly on behalf of Bill Clinton, who had just been elected president. Clinton was intrigued by the notion of bringing peace to Northern Ireland, of ending the violence between Protestants and Catholics. Peace would only work if the Irish Republican Army was interested in a cease-fire — but the incoming president knew he wouldn’t exactly be able to send his secretary of state to Belfast for a cheery sit-down with a group officially considered terrorists in Washington and London.
There needed to be a no-fingerprints, totally deniable approach to the overture. And into that opportunity walked O’Dowd, who was publisher of two influential Irish-American publications and had met Clinton during the presidential campaign. He offered to serve as a clandestine, off-the-books bridge between the United States and the IRA.
After making his pitch to a man in New York with “friends” in Belfast, O’Dowd received a cryptic handwritten note. A man from Sinn Fein, the political party closely associated with the IRA, would meet him at 11:30 a.m. in the bar at Wynn’s Hotel, just off Dublin’s famous O’Connell Street. His contact would be reading the Irish Times, with a pint of Guinness in front of him.
O’Dowd arrived drenched with rain and 20 minutes late, frantic that he had messed up his first attempt at amateur spy craft, he recalled to us. He stumbled into the half-empty bar, where a couple of regulars were sipping pints. There at a table was a tall, bearded man with thick, graying hair who was dressed in jeans and a casual jacket. He looked up over his Irish Times, a Guinness on the table.
“Ted,” he said, holding a hand out and introducing himself. “Niall,” O’Dowd replied.
O’Dowd got right to it and made the pitch: He’d personally spoken to Clinton a few months earlier, and Clinton had made it clear that he wanted to get involved in Northern Ireland. But not publicly, at least not yet. O’Dowd was in contact with people in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office who could relay messages to and from the White House. O’Dowd told Ted that he could put together a group of sympathetic Irish-American businessmen and politicians who would come to Belfast and publicly meet with representatives from all sides of the conflict — including an unprecedented meeting with Sinn Fein. The idea was to “internationalize” the issue — to give this domestic British problem the kind of international attention that had helped undermine apartheid in South Africa.
In return for any thaw in relations, the IRA would have to first agree to a week-long cease-fire during the American group’s visit to the north, O’Dowd said. It would be a goodwill gesture to prove, especially to Clinton, that the IRA was serious about wanting to work toward peace.
O’Dowd stressed to Ted that his group could have no official status from the White House, but that it would be “very well connected.” If the IRA took that first step, O’Dowd said, it was very possible that Clinton would buck pressure from London to not get involved and appoint a U.S. peace envoy to Northern Ireland. And, O’Dowd said, it was possible that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams might finally be able to receive a visa to visit the United States — a long-term goal in Sinn Fein’s campaign to have the world hear its voice.
Don’t miss the opportunity, O’Dowd told Ted. The conditions had never been this favorable.
Ted looked at his eager, idealistic partner — soggy from the rain, clearly nervous, a 39-year-old man of average build who did not stand out in any way except for the dimple on his chin. The rumpled journalist playing secret statesman listened as Ted said that Sinn Fein wanted to engage with America, wanted peace negotiations. “Part of our objective is that our movement is not isolated,” he said, without committing to anything, but without rejecting anything either.
O’Dowd waited, trying to read Ted. He gave away little, but O’Dowd could see him thinking it over. Maybe he didn’t think it was totally crazy.
If it did go forward, Ted said, here’s how communication would be handled: All documents would be destroyed after being read. There would be a code. The Irish-American effort would be called “the project”; Adams would be “chairman.” Letters would be hand-delivered by trusted couriers. The IRA would be “the local football team” while Kennedy would be “the brother.”
Without another word, Ted got up and left. O’Dowd felt overwhelming relief. “I had not been laughed out of the court,” he would say later. “The American connection was up and running.”
Illegal immigration to the United States is often framed as primarily a Latin American issue. But immigrants from all over the world have always been willing to bend or break the law to come to America. The Irish have been coming for as long as America has existed, and one large wave fled tough economic times in Ireland in the 1970s and ’80s.
Among them was Niall (pronounced “kneel”) O’Dowd, who arrived on a student visa in the summer of 1978 and overstayed it, becoming an undocumented immigrant. At the time, overstaying a visa seemed more like a detail than a serious offense, and O’Dowd — who scraped by painting houses and working construction — barely gave it a second thought.
But immigration would become a central focus of the Irish-American publications that O’Dowd began creating in San Francisco in the late 1970s, starting with the Irishman, a newspaper that he launched after pulling together $952 with the help of a friend, Tom McDonagh. He later founded Irish America, the first glossy magazine of its kind, and, two years after that, the Irish Voice, a newspaper aimed primarily at younger Irish immigrants.
Along the way, he became a powerful advocate for the Irish-American community. He also got himself legal. He lived in the United States illegally for around 18 months before the Irish Press, a Dublin-based newspaper, sponsored him for a work visa. He later obtained permanent residency through a Donnelly visa — a program named after Democratic Rep. Brian Donnelly of Massachusetts, which granted thousands of immigrants, predominantly Irish, legal status. And in 1989, O’Dowd became a U.S. citizen, with dual Irish and U.S. passports.
O’Dowd was passionate about immigrants’ rights, crusading for the Donnelly visa program in his editorials. Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic U.S. congressman from Connecticut, told us he thinks of O’Dowd as “the trumpet, the mouthpiece” for the Irish immigration reform movement. And today, as the Trump administration wages an all-out law enforcement assault against undocumented immigrants who are mainly from Latin America, O’Dowd is one of the preeminent Irish-American voices fighting for more welcoming U.S. immigration policies.
Immigration was far from O’Dowd’s only interest, however. He was also consumed with the issue of peace in Northern Ireland. And when a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton appeared on the U.S. political scene, the journalist saw an opening. O’Dowd spent months making the case for U.S. involvement to members of Clinton’s campaign. In January 1992, when O’Dowd met Clinton in New York, the candidate signaled his interest. “Niall, tell your friends Ireland is on my radar screen,” Clinton told him. “I think we can do something.”
Irish leaders all the way back to Éamon de Valera in the 1920s had been trying to get a U.S. president to inject America into the Northern Irish debate, but none had ever seriously taken it on — not even John F. Kennedy. The bond between Washington and the U.K. government was just too strong.
Now O’Dowd’s plan was to assemble a prominent group of Irish-Americans, people who had close ties to Clinton, and to use them to push for peace in Northern Ireland. They would act as unofficial intermediaries between Washington and Northern Ireland and its warring parties, most notably Sinn Fein and the IRA. The group would have the blessing of both the White House and the IRA — but both sides could still officially deny that they were talking to each other.
His first stop was Chuck Feeney, the self-made Irish-American billionaire who had co-founded duty-free shops around the world. Over dinner at P.J. Clarke’s in Manhattan, O’Dowd made his pitch to Feeney — and won his first recruit. He then quickly signed up Bill Flynn, who ran Mutual of America Insurance Co. and was well respected in the worlds of business and politics.
Most important, O’Dowd needed a trusted, well-known figure to be the effort’s public face. O’Dowd felt that for the group to be seen as legitimate in Ireland, the leader ought to be an American with an American accent. He immediately thought of Bruce Morrison, the former congressman who, along with Rep. Donnelly, had fought for Irish immigrants’ rights while serving in the House. He had also attended Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton and was a close friend of the first couple’s. As Penn Rhodeen recounts in his 2016 book about Morrison, “Peacerunner,” Morrison was looking for a way to do something constructive in Northern Ireland. The answer, Morrison said, “was Niall thinking very big thoughts about what we can do.”
Morrison told us O’Dowd’s idea to make Northern Ireland an international issue on the agenda of a U.S. president “was a radical notion at the time.” And his idea of creating an unorthodox group of unofficial peace envoys was equally inspired and outside-the-box. “Niall was the convener,” Morrison says. “If Niall had not been there, the group wouldn’t have formed.”
With his group in place, O’Dowd next needed to be sure that the IRA was truly willing to get involved. He met with Ciaran Staunton, another Irishman living in the United States, who had far deeper IRA ties than O’Dowd. Staunton helped O’Dowd create quiet channels into Sinn Fein and the IRA itself. And he helped arrange the Dublin meeting with Ted (O’Dowd later learned his full name was Ted Howell) where O’Dowd made his initial pitch. Ted, in turn, relayed O’Dowd’s message to Gerry Adams and top IRA leadership.
O’Dowd had first met Adams in 1983 when he interviewed him in Belfast for his start-up newspaper, the Irishman. Back then, by order of the British and Irish governments, the media was banned from even broadcasting Adams’s voice. But O’Dowd thought that silencing Adams was not smart; it offended many around the world who valued free speech.
A few years after their first meeting, O’Dowd offered Adams a monthly column in the Irish Voice, giving the Sinn Fein leader a way to get his message out in America. O’Dowd felt a better-informed public was the more effective way to get past the decades of deadlock. O’Dowd and Adams stayed in occasional touch through Adams’s columns, and both men have said that trust grew between them over the years. O’Dowd’s wife, Debbie McGoldrick, the Voice editor, would sometimes type up columns Adams dictated over the phone.
By the early 1990s, O’Dowd had come to believe that Adams was sincere about trying to persuade the IRA to “give up the gun” and press for nationalist causes through peaceful means. Adams, eager to create new international pressure to find peace, saw in O’Dowd a man he could trust. “If we gave Niall a message, it would get to the appropriate people in the White House,” Adams told us. “I didn’t have any doubt of it.” O’Dowd kept Sinn Fein apprised of his progress. As an added security measure, they usually communicated in Gaelic; O’Dowd and his Sinn Fein contacts were both fluent.
In early 1993, word came back to O’Dowd from the IRA that they needed a current elected official as part of the group to give it more gravitas and attract more attention. So O’Dowd enlisted Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a prominent Irish American and close Clinton ally.
O’Dowd then sent a letter via courier to Belfast explaining that his group was ready to publicly come over to Ireland and engage with Sinn Fein. But in return, they needed a sign of good faith: The IRA had to impose a week-long cease-fire during the group’s visit. Nancy Soderberg, Clinton’s deputy national security adviser, told O’Dowd she needed concrete evidence that the IRA was serious about working on peace.
“If we go over, and I get a cease-fire, will you take me seriously and deal with us?” he asked her.
“Prove it,” she replied. “Do the cease-fire, and we’ll start believing you.”
A week after O’Dowd sent his letter to Belfast, a man showed up at O’Dowd’s New York office, handed him an envelope and left without saying a word. The IRA had agreed: There would be a seven-day cease-fire starting on May 4, 1993.
O’Dowd notified his group, and they began making arrangements. But then, he told us, just a few days before the start of the trip, Mayor Flynn had second thoughts about the politically risky endeavor and abruptly dropped out. The plan quickly unraveled without its high-profile political face. O’Dowd’s contacts in the IRA were furious, and they summoned him to Belfast to explain himself.
A week later, O’Dowd found himself sitting in the living room of an unremarkable and secret West Belfast home, facing Gerry Adams, Ted Howell and several men he recognized as top leaders of the IRA. Adams explained that getting the IRA to agree to a cease-fire had been a monumental feat. Having the American delegation cancel was a blow that would give ammunition to factions in the IRA that opposed any peace deal.
For the next two hours, O’Dowd explained the situation as honestly as he could. “I’m sitting there with these characters, and they said, ‘Are you misleading us? Are you a spy?’ ” O’Dowd told us. “I said, ‘No. I screwed up. I picked the wrong guy.’ ”
In the end, Adams accepted his explanation and asked him to reschedule the trip. In September 1993, O’Dowd had a letter from the IRA secretly pledging another week-long cease-fire. He and his core group — Feeney, Morrison and Bill Flynn, the insurance executive — arrived in Dublin and met with Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, then moved on the next day to Belfast, keeping the White House quietly updated through Sen. Kennedy’s office.
In Belfast, the high-profile group, while not publicly acknowledging their White House ties, met with Protestant loyalist political and paramilitary groups. While O’Dowd’s heart was with Sinn Fein, he also knew that any peace plan needed the blessing of the Protestant loyalists. Later he recruited Gary McMichael, the son of a key loyalist figure, to write articles for his newspaper. And O’Dowd would write the foreword to McMichael’s book “An Ulster Voice.”
The group also attended a public meeting at Sinn Fein headquarters, to hear the stories of local residents. People told them they had faith that American involvement could finally win them some better treatment and respect. One woman spoke of how her son had been shot by the British army, and when she was finished, she took O’Dowd by the hand and said, “Thank you for not treating us like animals.”
The Americans then met privately with Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders and emerged feeling that the IRA was committed to seeking peace. At the end of their eight-day visit, news broke in the local press about the IRA’s specific cease-fire for the American delegation, the first since the 1970s. At the White House, it was seen as a clear signal that the IRA was serious about working with the Clinton team.
At first, Nancy Soderberg didn’t trust O’Dowd. She wouldn’t even talk directly to him. But eventually she became his primary contact in the White House during his secret peace negotiations. She came to realize that he wasn’t just a messenger but the interpreter of the message — especially the signals of Adams. “One of the frustrating things about working with Adams at the time was that the language was so cautious and twisted and contorted, it often just looked like gobbledygook to me,” she told us. “And Niall helped peel that onion back so that you could sort of read between the layers and understand what was going on.”
Soderberg says she came to admire O’Dowd and appreciate that he could interpret what Adams was saying, observe what was happening on the ground and predict what was ahead. “He was absolutely correct every single time, so I got to trust him. Nothing ever leaked, so I became really quite dependent on his analysis and interpretative skills and his discretion. And it is very unusual to have an outsider play that role.”
Over the next months, O’Dowd, Morrison and their group urged the White House to have Clinton grant Adams a long-denied visa to visit the United States. In the end, Clinton agreed, and Adams made a high-profile trip starting on Jan. 31, 1994.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1994, O’Dowd and his group remained in close contact with Sinn Fein. They traveled to the party’s annual conference in Letterkenny, Ireland, in the spring and met behind closed doors with Adams and other leaders. The goal was a complete, public, unequivocal cease-fire, but O’Dowd and his group knew that trying to rush the IRA was a waste of time.
On Aug. 10, O’Dowd received a letter from the IRA stating that the group had an “urgent need” for details of what the Americans would give the IRA in return for a cease-fire. That letter is the only document from the process that O’Dowd has kept for history. It included one potentially disastrous demand, a possible dealbreaker: The IRA was demanding $1 million to open a Sinn Fein office in Washington and fund its operation for the first three years.
O’Dowd now had 48 hours to come up with a million dollars. He knew only one man who could make that happen: Chuck Feeney. And Feeney’s response was what it had been every time O’Dowd asked for his help: “Of course.”
In indirect collaboration with Soderberg and her White House team, O’Dowd, Morrison and the others drew up a document that promised U.S. business investment in Northern Ireland, regular visas for Sinn Fein leaders and limits on the deportation of people with ties to the IRA. It also promised to permit Sinn Fein to open a U.S. office. And while Feeney wouldn’t pay the IRA or Sinn Fein directly, he did end up covering the bills for their office for the next three years. O’Dowd’s wife, McGoldrick, then faxed the letter to a secret contact in Ireland.
The contact, following agreed-upon instructions, took the letter and stood on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge on a damp night. A woman eventually appeared out of the fog and asked him, “Do you think Dublin will win the game on Sunday?” That was the signal, and the courier handed over the letter without a word.
O’Dowd quickly received a written response that seemed positive: The group should be prepared to return to Belfast. On Aug. 25, O’Dowd, Morrison, Flynn and Feeney arrived back in Ireland, this time joined by labor union executives Joe Jamison and Bill Lenihan. The group’s presence “reinforced the American dimension to those in the IRA army council who were about to make what was to them a momentous decision to call off their war,” wrote Conor O’Clery, author of “Daring Diplomacy: Clinton’s Secret Search for Peace in Ireland.”
They met with Reynolds in Dublin and Adams and other top Sinn Fein leaders in Belfast. They feared some last-minute complication, but Adams shocked them by saying that the IRA was preparing “to call a complete cessation.”
Just before noon on Aug. 31, 1994, as O’Dowd listened to the radio while exercising in a Dublin hotel, a young woman’s voice made the IRA announcement. As of midnight, “there will be a complete cessation of military operations.” O’Dowd stepped off the treadmill and broke down in tears.
A few minutes later, O’Dowd was called to the hotel phone. It was Sen. Kennedy. “Ted was like a 5-year-old; he was so happy,” O’Dowd remembers. Later that day, as O’Dowd waited at a television station to give an interview, Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, “literally bounded in and squeezed my hand so hard I thought he was going to fracture it.”
The following year, Clinton made a triumphant visit to Ireland. O’Dowd trailed the president’s plane on Air Force Two, with the other members of his group and Irish-American leaders from across the country. Clinton spoke to more than 200,000 people, the crowd chanting his name at Belfast’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. He received an equally rapturous reception at an outdoor speech in Dublin. Clinton called it the “two best days of my presidency.”
The euphoria did not hold. Nor did the peace. Mistrust and missteps continued, and 17 months after the cease-fire the IRA resumed bombing, this time at London’s Canary Wharf. More negotiations and more cease-fires followed. But finally, in April 1998, persistent peace talks led by former U.S. senator George Mitchell culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. That deal created a peace that has held for two decades — thanks to the foundation that O’Dowd helped lay.
O’Dowd is exceedingly patriotic about his adopted land. “I believe in this country,” he told us. “Even coming to America pretty penniless, everything worked out for me, and it’s to the credit of this country, period.” He is disturbed by those currently arguing for the mass arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants, saying they forget the value these individuals can bring: “I think America is missing an incalculable opportunity because, to come to this country, these people had to be courageous and brave to take the chance. The notion that immigration in the past was always legal is nonsense. To say it used to be an orderly process is at odds with historic reality.” America took a chance on O’Dowd. Believing in immigrants, he said, is what America is all about.
Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan are Washington Post national correspondents who ran The Post’s bureaus in Tokyo, Mexico City and London for 14 years. This piece is adapted from “Nine Irish Lives: The Thinkers, Fighters & Artists Who Helped Build America,” edited by Mark Bailey.