The group often used car and truck bombs and targeted civilian populations, such as the carnage resulting from 1998’s car bombing of a crowded marketplace in Omagh. Twenty-nine people died, more than 200 were injured; among the dead were nine children and a woman pregnant with twins, according to the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) project at the University of Ulster. Five years earlier, a December 1983, IRA car bomb detonated outside popular Harrods department store in central London during Christmas shopping season killing six people, including one American.
King frequented IRA pubs and hangouts throughout the 1980s, according to a 1987 New York Times article, jokingly referring to himself as “The Ollie North of Ireland” on one such visit. In 1985, the Irish government boycotted the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City because King was its grand marshal that year, according to the Times.
Ironically, a major, if not the largest financier and arms supplier for the IRA was once now-embattled Libyan dictator Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi. Northern Ireland politicians have been in talks with Libya since 2009 trying to secure a compensation package for 160 victims of IRA violence. Those discussions were recently put on hold due to the unrest in Libya.
True to his character, King is unapologetic regarding his involvement with the Irish group and doesn’t see any hypocrisy at all.
“First of all, there’s no comparison,” he insists. “The most obvious [difference] is the IRA never attacked the United States, and never attacked America. That’s number one. Number two, I did know a lot about what was going on in Northern Ireland. The IRA was a force that was there. It had been there for decades, if not centuries, but I did know people in that movement. People like Gerry Adams [president of Sinn Fein, Ireland’s left-wing Republican political party, long associated with the IRA], who I became convinced wanted to move it onto a peaceful level if they could get the assurances of an honest broker.
“That’s why I said the IRA was a legitimate force, because it was—it had the support of a large number of people in the Catholic community, because of what was being done to the Irish people. But it was done to the extent of getting the United States involved. That’s why I pushed so hard to get the visa for Adams [in 1994]. Once that happened, the ceasefire was called. When the IRA briefly broke the ceasefire I condemned it.
“To me there’s no inconsistency,” he continues. “Probably no one did more, other than Clinton and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, by the way, to keep that peace process going and to bring them to the table, make sure they stay at the table. I can say that because of my efforts, there’s thousands of people alive today in Ireland.”
D’Amato agrees. As U.S. Senator-elect, he accompanied King on his first of many trips to Northern Ireland, along with then-Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, to Belfast.
“It was a catastrophe prior to Peter King raising his voice, taking on the critics, being bashed by The New York Times for being a meddler,” he explains. “And what was he doing? Pete was exposing the truth! The fact that the Catholics in Northern Ireland at that time were being severely persecuted. And we needed a process to bring about peace and stop the IRA and the Orangemen—both of the warring militant terrorist groups—because they were terrorizing each other’s communities and innocent people. It was Pete King with the courage to stand up.
“It was an eye-opener for me and it was horrific. You talk about segregation,” he adds. “We witnessed the hunger strikes. We witnessed people marching for their rights. We witnessed the deprivation of the minority, the Catholic minority, in terms of a lack of jobs, in terms of being segregated out of decent housing—a lawless enforcement of the law by the authorities, which were brutal. And, of course, that brought about horrific deaths on both sides, by both sides, by the extremists on both sides. So, it was a lot of courage for a young man, who at that time was the county comptroller, to stand up and take a stand. And I was deeply gratified of having an opportunity to go and learn about this firsthand.”