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.”

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  • Turbo Paul

    Mr Reiss needs to use his political muscle by declaring: “If no agreement is reached by November, this administration will go shopping for new leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP”

    The article,entitled “Yes it’s good to talk – just don’t tell anyone you did” by Newton Emerson in the Irish News on 8th June 06 is a real breath of fresh air because it tells the truth about leaderships of both sides enjoying “jolly up’s” at the expense of the people, whilst talking to each-other, although this talk may only be: “Pass the fillet steak Gerry, or, new car Ian, enjoy your first class trip abroad?”

    Top class hotels, junkets abroad, Rolex watches, holiday homes, generous salaries, top of the range cars, leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP are having a privilaged lifestyle at the expense of the people. Perhaps if these perks are taken away then the leaderships of both sides will have an incentive to reach a deal.

    The poor and disaffected from both sides in Ireland should realise, deal or no deal, they will still be poor.

    You only have to look at South Africa to see, poor Blacks in Soweto are as poor as ever, but they do get to put a cross on a ballot every five years.

    Nazi Aparthid was replaced by Upper Class educated Blacks, the poor are still poor and disaffected.

  • Occasional Commentator

    This isn’t exactly relevant but some may be interested …

    BBC News 24 have just reported that 3 detainees in Gitmo have committed suicide.

  • lib2016

    The GFA was at least in part a victory for the Democratic Party in America. Reiss and Bush have never demonstrated any strong support for it but the next (Democrat) administration in America may have a few questions to ask about why Labour has delayed its implementation for so long.

  • Turbo Paul

    Americans pretty much think the war is over in Ireland and it is only at matter of time before the political landscape is carved up.

    Americans think any future conflict in Ireland will be of a political nature and in the fashion of the Washington Beltway, rather than in Iraq.

    To get the full attention of the current Bush, White House, Irish political players must offer something that is in in the direct interest of America, say $300 million worth of stolen art from Boston, or Irish politicians must be prepared to definately reach a deal before the Americans will show interest and be there to claim credit.

  • Pete Baker

    There’s a lot more in that interview than the, in general, lower-profile but continuing involvement of the US administration which the comments so far have focussed on.

  • Turbo Paul

    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.”

    If ever there was an offer of “Nepotism” it is within this section, perhaps the leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP should use this to their advantage???????

    Olive branches, no, but favours returned, yes.

    To paraphrase Kennedy, “Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America first”

  • Pete Baker


    You’re a long way from making a case that the comment you’ve noted means that the US administration will only use that influence in return for something to benefit itself.

    SF or the DUP doing something of benefit for the US?

    It’s more a statement that the US will pick and chose when, and where, that influence will be applied to put pressure on the parties here – such as with the issue of fundraising.

  • Turbo Paul

    Point taken,
    but as it is election year in the U.S. a deal in Ireland could look good on the foreign policy front.

    Of course Reiss is hedging his bets and waiting for the right time to excert pressure, so it for the players in Ireland to find the prompt.

    Fundraising, Irish illigals, Malachy McAllister granted asylum, of course something has to be given for these issues.

    Policing is top of the list in public for the Americans, but there are a number of issues off the record, criminality, global underworld connections that need addressing as well.

    Reiss has the issue of policing in his pocket, Gerry Adams, I am sure has given assurances that it is a hurdle that can be overcome, but there needs to be something in return, devolved power.

    The public tough talking by Reiss is for DUP consumption, by his own admission, Reiss likes to negociate out of the media spotlight.

    When the poker game starts in earnest, I am sure policing will be on the table.

  • Pete Baker

    Sorry, FP, your analysis doesn’t hold together.

    For a start, the idea that Reiss is “waiting for the right time” ignores the fact that fundraising privileges have been withheld consistently for the last year or so where SF are concerned.

    Secondly, on policing, the “criminality, global underworld connections that need addressing as well” are all encompassed by his comments in the interview, and his expectation of a response from the DUP:

    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.”

    That Adams has given assurances on policing and these other matters is strongly supported by all the governments taking the “not a precondition” line that I noted in the post. But he still has to deliver on those assurances.

  • Pete Baker

    One other slight kink in your analysis.. the US Senate elections will take place on November 7th, with 33 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate being contested.

    The deadline for the Executive here is November 24th.

  • Pat Mc Larnon

    ‘For a start, the idea that Reiss is “waiting for the right time” ignores the fact that fundraising privileges have been withheld consistently for the last year or so where SF are concerned.’

    Not true, what has been withheld is the ability of Adams et al to attend fund raising events. However, fund raising for SF is permitted with no restrictions whatsoever.

  • Turbo Paul

    Pete, kink accepted, I was lazy and did not take time to check dates about November elections.

    As to IRA criminality, the DUP has consistently moved the goal posts so as to keep from entering into government with Sinn Fein.

    I remember when the DUP said IRA weapons was the bar to shared government, now its criminality.

    If a criminal votes for Sinn Fein does that mean the DUP will not enter government????

    How many DUP voters have criminal records?

    I wonder what reasons the DUP will cook up to refuse to share power in the future??

    The faint hope of returning to exclusive Unionist power bars the DUP from ever being able to reach a deal.

    Reiss and the Irish American lobby can deliver Sinn Fein but who can deliver the DUP????

    The criminality card played by the DUP is open ended, it is impossible to eradicate all criminality so anyone convicted of a crime who supports Sinn Fein can always be used by the DUP to refuse to share power.

  • Pete Baker


    There are a number of strawmen arguments in your comments that are not worth discussing.

    If you believe the points you raise to be the case then you must believe there will be no agreement ever.

    I recommend reading the previous interviews conducted by Frank Millar to get a feel for the various positions of the various players.

    As I’ve pointed out Reiss certainly appears to hold the view that if SF deliver on policing etc then there is no justification for any further delays by the DUP.

    He also appears to agree with the Oversight Commissioner that SF withholding consent on policing is a political tactic that is not justified by the reality of ongoing, and irreversible, changes in policing – and that’s an very interesting point to compare with the position stated by Dermot Ahern in his interview.

  • pid


    you see daylight between Dermot Ahern and Reiss and so do I.

    The USG (who have a what I say is what I mean culture) buys the line that the GFA and it’s institutions are the only show in town, and in theory SF echo this.

    However a properly functioning NI with SF involved in policing is NOT what the “National Project” is all about. Ahern and SF know this and can wait until Reiss’s watch is over.

    As for the Irish American lobby, it declines in importance every year; only a gratuitous insult from the (US) Republicans would cost them.

    The ‘special relationship’ trumps it every time.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    The US office here isn’t bound by the same diplomatic and political shackles that constrain all other actors in the peace process… which is why it can afford to be ‘pushy’ and play a little hardball with the Shinners from time to time (and is why Adams gets ticked off) by exercising influence where it can (eg Adams fundraising, deportation, visas etc).

    The biggest issue for the Americans for at least the past five years (and probably much longer) is the creation of an effective and accountable police service in Northern Ireland. This is not a new thing (see Iraq for a less successful example), and my guess is that for NI they place stock in the (American) PSNI Oversight Commissioner’s opinion, which has published both positive and negative criticism.

    You can also be pretty sure that if SF deliver, Reiss will stick to his word and be all over Paisley like a rash.

    When Bush downgraded ‘Northern Ireland’ from the White House to the State Department, inevitably that meant relations would be more low-key. They certainly could never be on the scale of Clinton again.

    But despite questionable excursions elsewhere around the world, I think the post-Clinton US representation here has been largely fair and positive.

    Sometimes they say what needs to be said, they bring an outsider’s more neutral perspective, carry less baggage, and can add a little lateral thinking to the process. Some ideas that originated in the States were later used to dig the Agreement out of one hole or another.

    They’ve also provided local politicians with political ‘breathing space’ outside the UK and Ireland (in the same way Bertie and Tony constantly seem to discuss NI “on the fringes while in Europe”!) They have encouraged political mixing, while trying themselves to understand two sides of a complex debate, and I think this will pay off.

    I posted a while ago links to some stories about some supposed shift in who influenced US policy (can’t rem details).

    Does anyone know of any study of post-Clinton US interest in the peace process?