“The lack of transparency was far from surprising..”

Recently noted on Slugger were reports based on a PHd thesis research by Mary Alice Clancy into the role of the US government here. The detailed article has now been published online in the Royal Irish Academy journal and it’s well worth reading in it’s entirety [pdf file].Any number of paragraphs could be highlighted, including this line

As one former official colourfully put it, Clinton ‘is a s—t, but ultimately he is a thinking man’s s—t’, and the same official asserted that Clinton evinced a greater even-handedness when British officials explained that he would secure himself no legacy if his intervention in Northern Ireland was perceived to be tendentious.18

But I’ll just point to some areas in particular which help illuminate a couple of key moments in The Process™

Firstly the ascendency of the DUP over the UUP

Like the Irish government, Haass appeared to believe that the IMC could cause problems for the leadership of the Republican movement. When Trimble stated in 2002 that only a clear ‘winding down’ of the IRA would obviate the political process’s collapse, Haass asked him how this could be done whilst preventing ‘a mass exodus to the Real IRA’: fear of a Republican split arose frequently in Haass’s statements.54 Although officials from all three governments occasionally articulated this fear, it is worth questioning how real the dissident threat was after 1998.

Although the split that created the Real IRA in 1997 resulted in some key people leaving the Provisional IRA (i.e., the Engineering Department), the bulk of the northern based IRA stayed loyal to Adams. Therefore, the threat was limited in size, and as one Irish official argued, the dissidents suffered from other problems as well:

The Real IRA is a very border thing…The Continuity [IRA] is just sort of old geezers down in Limerick which aren’t going to hit the thing [peace process] too much…The other thing is, and the Provos would always say to me, they [the dissidents] were incompetent. They were lucky that a lot of incompetent people got involved at the start with the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, and often people who had been sort of sidelined by the Provos got in and made a mess of things.55

As such, it appears that Haass’s concerns about dissidents most likely stemmed from his growing relationship with Adams, as officials have admitted that raising the spectre of dissidents was one of Adams’s key negotiating strategies.56 Therefore, it seems unfair to blame unionist disillusionment with the Agreement on Trimble by characterising him as some sort of latter-day Willy Loman: this ignores that his attempts to keep the unionist community on board for the Belfast Agreement often took a back seat to the three governments’ concern not to cause ‘difficulties’ for the Republican leadership.57 Moreover, it also ignores that Trimble successfully negotiated the Agreement and managed to sell it to a very sceptical UUP.

What of US officials’ contention that the DUP would eventually cut a deal? Although the DUP had been making electoral gains throughout the post-Agreement period at the UUP’s expense,58 it does not necessarily follow that the DUP’s increased vote share translated into a mandate for power sharing. Rather, it could also be interpreted as a protest vote that expressed the unionist electorate’s alienation from the political process in toto. Although Table 2 shows just over a third of Protestant/unionist voters stating in 2002 that they would vote ‘yes’ if the referendum on the Agreement was held again, US officials have stated that they found the polling data on unionist disillusionment to be ‘ambiguous’.59 The US Consulate in Belfast commissioned a poll of its own, which showed 49% Protestant/unionist support for the Agreement, a result that allowed officials to combat the notion that there had been a steady decline in unionist/Protestant support for the Agreement.60 Although the survey also found that a majority of Protestants/unionists had little or no confidence in the Assembly and felt that Northern Ireland was ‘headed in the wrong direction’, the Consulate played up the poll’s more positive findings.

Given these discrepancies, one has to wonder whether US officials commissioned the poll to find an answer that would support their own overtures to the DUP. US officials active at the time stated that their social and professional contacts with the DUP’s second generation led them to believe that the party would sign up to power sharing when the time came. According to a US official:

I think we developed a far more nuanced view of the DUP way in advance of London…We had told London this was going to happen [that the DUP was going to overtake the UUP], and they were just in disbelief about the whole thing. And then when it did happen they knew almost nobody in the DUP, whereas we were actually comfortable—knew each other, knew their kids, and also knew that these [people] weren’t monsters.61

US officials’ comfortableness with DUP members led to speculation that the United States was facilitating meetings between the party and Sinn Féin. Jack Holland reported in 2002 that the US Consulate in Belfast confirmed that that middle-ranking representatives of the DUP and Sinn Féin were in the US for a congressionally sponsored leadership programme and could have easily met under those conditions, although the consular spokesman denied that any alleged meetings were part of US policy.62 When asked about these allegations, one US official stated that Richard Bullick, an adviser to Peter Robinson, and Timothy Johnston, the DUP’s Director of Communications, had taken part in a programme at Harvard that was designed to sharpen the party’s negotiating skills, but this individual could not remember having Sinn Féin members meet with the DUP during these sessions.63

Whether or not US officials facilitated any tête-à-têtes between representatives of the two parties remains unclear, but what is clear is that many US officials put much stock in the ‘modernising’ wing of the DUP. The question remains, however, were they right to do so? ‘Modernisers’ such as Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds may have portrayed themselves as amenable to a power-sharing deal, but it was also in their interest do so: presenting themselves as moderates could reap dividends electorally, as officials who were frustrated with Trimble would be more likely to push for an election if they felt that there was a viable alternative in the wake of the UUP’s demise. Moreover, whether the ‘modernisers’ really wanted power sharing or not, they still would have to convince Ian Paisley of its merits. As an Irish official explained, this was no small matter:

I think we [the Irish government] probably overestimated [Peter] Robinson at certain stages…I think there were a lot of people in Dublin, London and Washington who felt Robinson could deliver. David Trimble once said that Peter Robinson couldn’t deliver a bottle of milk[sic],64 and there’s some element of truth in that. He’s intellectually able, but in the end it’s an unusual party. It’s the nearest thing to the papacy that they have, and Paisley is the most Latin politician in these islands. You know, exaggerated gestures and I mean he wouldn’t like to hear that but he looks like he’s straight from the Naples Opera House…In the end, just like in the old Fianna Fáil here when de Valera was still around, in the end no one can depose Paisley.65

Nevertheless, the prospect of a DUP–Sinn Féin deal would have to be entertained by the end of 2003. The failed sequencing of October 2003 was rather stiff,66 and the ambiguous act of IRA decommissioning that occurred under its aegis left Trimble bereft of the transparency he would need for the impending elections. The lack of transparency was far from surprising: Sinn Féin had been told that elections would be held in the following month, a decision that Downing Street allegedly took due to pressure from Dublin and Washington.67 Nevertheless, one must wonder whether Haass and Dublin were playing convenient roles for Downing Street, as the latter could not make overtures to the DUP lest it be accused of dropping Trimble; a US official argued that Trimble was still Downing Street’s man even on the eve of 2003 Assembly elections:

I think he [Haass] gave up on Trimble way before Number 10 did. I think it took No. 10 absolutely forever to understand that Trimble had lost his traction as a Northern Ireland politician. I mean right into that disastrous election defeat where the DUP took 31 [sic]68 seats in the Assembly. But they believed in…I mean, I had dinner at Buckingham Palace with the Queen and this is what she wanted to talk about was Trimble’s election prospects. And you go ‘Wow’. You know, and then you have to say, ‘Well, Trimble’s the one’.69

Knowing that they would get their desired elections, and that any ambiguity regarding IRA decommissioning would harm the UUP electorally, there appeared to be every incentive for Sinn Féin and the IRA to be less than forthcoming during the sequencing. In the Assembly election that followed, the DUP eclipsed the UUP and became the primary party within the unionist bloc, but, pace US officials, it was hardly an electoral routing of the latter party.70

Although US officials were not the only ones putting pressure on Downing Street for the election, one has to wonder, given the paramount importance of the United Kingdom to the ‘war on terror’, why didn’t the White House muzzle Haass? Part of the answer appears to be structural. The US special envoy for Northern Ireland is a presidential envoy, and the thus the position is not subject to the degree of oversight that other positions in the State Department are.71 So structure was partly to blame; but this still fails to answer why Downing Street didn’t call the White House. Although a definitive explanation will probably have to await the publication of either Tony Blair or Jonathan Powell’s memoirs, Godson has argued that it was most likely Number 10’s unwillingness to ask the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives for a favour, coupled with Blair’s reluctance to spend his ‘credit’ with the administration on an issue like Northern Ireland when it could be spent on something like the Middle East.72 If this is so, then it is unfortunate, as it confirms the thesis proposed by Kendall Myers—a recently retired State Department analyst with an expertise in Northern Ireland—that the UK has been the uxorious partner in the ‘special relationship’ under the Bush administration.73 Whatever the reason, the 2003 Assembly election left both the DUP and Sinn Féin as the head of their electoral blocs. Haass would soon exit, stage left, for the presidency of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, and it would be up to his successor, Mitchell Reiss, to pick up where he left off.

And secondly the more recent St Andrews talks and subsequent agreement

Differences aside, however, the fundraising ban was lifted in November 2006, shortly after the St Andrews Agreement. Although this might suggest that St Andrews represented a breakthrough between Sinn Féin and the DUP, officials have admitted that ‘agreement’ is a bit of a strong word for what occurred at St Andrews. According to a British official, Ian Paisley Snr told NIO officials in the summer of 2006 that he was ready to agree to a power-sharing deal, provided that it was the right deal (i.e., that it dealt with the issue of policing). Paisley repeated this to Peter Hain the week before St Andrews, adding that he wanted the deal to be done quickly, and he then reiterated this to Tony Blair on the eve of the talks.95 Paisley’s eagerness, however, frightened some DUP members, and these individuals attempted to restrain Paisley by adopting an intransigent negotiating stance that made the prospect of a deal highly unlikely. According to an Irish official:

Things were so bad…that at one stage [Tánaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform] Michael McDowell, our Michael McDowell, went to the DUP and said, ‘Look, I’m a moderate nationalist but what you’re talking about, even I couldn’t accept’. I mean [he was] very genuine. So on Thursday night he did go to them, and he did speak to them. By Friday morning we were getting an indication from them that they were prepared to entertain something on the 24th of November—to be defined. And really it went from there… ultimately the decision was taken by the two governments that we’d call our work an agreement. But really it was an ‘intended’ agreement I suppose.96

Read the whole thing [pdf file]

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