Reiss on policing, outstanding issues, and the collective failure that would be Plan B

In the run up to the recall of the assembly in May, the Irish Times’ Frank Millar interviewed Dermot Ahern, Peter Hain, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley – noted on Slugger at the time. Today, in what could be described as a follow-up, he interviews US special envoy Mitchell Reiss[subs req], and gets some interesting and, given the continuing if lower-profile American involvement, important answers from a man with “a mean diplomatic punch”He deals firstly with the apparent lesser attention given to the Irish question by the current US administration – full article here:

I put the question for a variety of reasons. Sure, at summits and on set-piece occasions the Taoiseach or the British prime minister will attest to America’s ongoing importance. Yet even President Clinton’s role was probably less in his second term than in his first. The world has changed after September 11th. The Irish question, inevitably, has slipped down the agenda. And, of course, the Belfast Agreement itself changed the dynamics by imposing a direct burden on the local parties, thus reducing the role of outside facilitators.

Ambassador Reiss agrees: “That’s absolutely true. The distance we had to travel was clearly much further in the past. Where we are today is a product of that success.” However, he still hears from both governments and across the political spectrum the desire for continuing American involvement, and appreciation in particular for the role of President Bush, “given all the other things on his agenda, for him staying involved and allowing the US to help”.

The main section of the interview deals with the increasing tension evident between Sinn Féin and the US Special Envoy and it’s worth reading in full:

I also put the question for a particular reason, namely Sinn Féin’s apparent antipathy to Mr Reiss’s own involvement. In his recent Irish Times interview, Gerry Adams told me to “pay no heed” to the ambassador, the republican charge being that Mr Reiss has further reduced American influence because of the position he has taken on the vexed question of policing in the North.

The man chosen by former US secretary of state Colin Powell packs a mean diplomatic punch. First gently suggesting that it’s never totally useful “to have a discussion through the media”, Mr Reiss responds: “I think what Gerry Adams said about my not having any authority in Northern Ireland is absolutely correct, and that the key decisions are going to be made by the political parties and the two governments. But I think it’s also correct to say that the United States does have a fair amount of influence, and it’s how we decide to use and leverage that influence that defines the role we play in the peace process.”

Sinn Féin’s complaint is that he has chosen to use that leverage by way of a ban on Mr Adams raising funds in the US as part of an overt attempt to force the pace of the internal republican debate on the policing issue.

Again, the diplomatic language doesn’t quite mask the envoy’s fairly uncompromising stance: “I’m not going to speak for them or how they interpret events. As I’ve explained on a number of occasions, this really isn’t about fundraising at all. It’s all about giving the decent, law-abiding people in republican and nationalist communities the type of police service they deserve, so that they’re not confined to ghettoes. It’s about policing, it’s about normality, about having a police service that reflects the personality and the wishes of people of the communities.”

Sinn Féin would say they are the better judge of how to conduct the debate with that end goal in mind than Mitchell Reiss. “Well, they certainly can say what they like. But I think I’ve heard it from enough people in these communities, and from others, that I think the people in these communities are a little ahead of where the party [ Sinn Féin] is. And Al Hutchinson [ the Oversight Commissioner] gave a report the other day in which he said there is no reason for Sinn Féin any more not to join the Policing Board and support the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

Yet republicans are apparently perplexed by an American stance they say is at odds with the declared position of the British and Irish governments.

Specifically, and intriguingly, they say Mr Reiss has shaped a position rendered irrelevant by their prior agreement or understanding with London as to how the policing issue can be resolved over time. And indeed we’ve heard reports in the past week that Northern Secretary Peter Hain is pressing the envoy to lift the fundraising ban.

However, Mr Reiss insists: “I’m convinced, persuaded . . . that there is no difference of opinion at this moment between the British, Irish and American governments on the issue of policing. Everyone recognises how essential this is to getting a normal society in Northern Ireland.”

In terms of the fundraising ban on Mr Adams: “The British and Irish governments have always stated that this is an internal American decision. We’ve had consultations on this all along. On my recent trip to London and Dublin, we discussed the matter at some length. So I think the story that appeared recently [ in the London Times] that there was a disagreement between Secretary of State Hain and myself was wildly overblown.”

Looking ahead to the latest British/Irish “deadline” for a deal at Stormont, does Mr Reiss think the policing issue can and should be resolved by November 24th?

“I certainly hope so,” he replies, interestingly without the usual British/Irish caveat about it being a requirement but not a precondition: “I think it’s important to recognise the steps Sinn Féin has already taken and some of the work they are doing internally with their own constituency. I think they need to do it for their own reasons, regardless of whatever the governments say, what other parties say. Sinn Féin needs to do it on its own for its own constituents. I think they understand that, and for whatever reasons they do decide to do it, it will be a very good day for the people of Northern Ireland.”

As both Dermot Ahern and Peter Hain did in their interviews, Reiss sticks to the official line that while moving to support policing is not a precondition, there is an expectation:

But when London and Dublin say it’s not a precondition for a devolution deal come November, does America stand four-square behind them?

“We’re always supportive of the governments,” he replies: “Again, as I’ve said before, I think Sinn Féin need to do it. They’re moving in the right direction. We just want them to follow through.”

Reiss also argues that should the outstanding issues, as put forward by the DUP’s Peter Robinson, be dealt with, there would be no justification in the DUP not moving forward into an Executive:

The worry for many people is that even if Sinn Féin resolves the policing issue, the DUP will simply find fresh obstacles. Is he saying that Sinn Féin signing up for policing should be seen as the last act, so to speak, of republican decommissioning?

Again, Mitchell Reiss says he doesn’t want to presume to know the DUP’s position, while his own seems clear: “I will say that I’ve been encouraged by the objective criteria they have set out for joining a government with Sinn Féin. The two issues Peter Robinson articulated when he visited the US in April were a commitment to supporting the police and an ending of IRA criminality. I think those are completely reasonable for the DUP to stake out – and again, if they should be met, then I can’t see any reason why the DUP wouldn’t be willing to stand up in Stormont immediately.”

I note Mr Hain thinks republicans have to all intents and purposes already passed the test, with the historic decision now to be made by the DUP. Mr Reiss in turn notes the potential importance of October’s Independent Monitoring Commission report if convergence is to be secured with Dr Paisley: “I don’t think the DUP is quite where Peter [ Hain] is at this point. I hope they will be after the October report.”

And there’s a final point made by Reiss on the damge to both the DUP and Sinn Féin if the November deadline is missed and Plan B, the currently ill-defined joint-stewardship, comes into play:

Mr Reiss disputes the contention that Plan B as defined is all “carrot” for Sinn Féin and “stick” for the DUP, and argues both sides will lose from a sense of their collective failure: “It really depends on what form joint stewardship takes. But I think there’s a larger sense that decisions will be taken by people other than Sinn Féin or any of the political parties in Northern Ireland, and I can’t see how that’s anything but uncomfortable for leaderships that have staked their reputations and careers on being the stewards of their own people.”