End of an era on Ireland – Obama

Barack Obama’s decision to review the need for a special envoy to Northern Ireland may be overdue on our side of the pond but it’s “completely unacceptable” to the influential Irish-American lobbyist Niall Dowd. Firmly Democratic Irish America is not happy, it seems – suggesting Obama was either bold or rash to raise the issue at the very moment when party unity is everything. This issue exposes a split from the Clinton camp at exactly the wrong time. In March, at the height of the bitter battle of the primaries, Dowd’s paper Irish Voice ran a strong piece slapping down Obama’s lack of experience on Northern Ireland. At exactly the strategic moment, St Patrick’s weekend,

“Clinton’s deputy national policy director Jake Sullivan outlined several Irish policies that would be undertaken in a Clinton White House come 2009. He said Clinton would immediately appoint an American special envoy on Ireland who would maintain an office in the White House and report directly to the president. .Clinton would also firmly focus on economic development in Northern Ireland, Sullivan said, and have her secretary of commerce and other government agencies get involved in developing strategies for Ireland.”

Obvious politicking at the time maybe, but what is the Clinton unity camp saying now? And is this a case of Obama coolly distancing himself from a Clinton promise deliberately, or a screw-up?
Unionists treated US Special Envoys with suspicion, more so under Clinton than Bush because of the tradition of mainly Democratic Irish-American pressure. But the record shows that when the chips were down, successive envoys put more pressure on Republicans than the British government did, notably over decommissioning. Here are two sharp insights, the first one of special envoy Richard Hass with Gerry Adams on a fateful day.

“In the Observer, Alan Ruddock, begins his account with the morning of September 11, the day of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, as the US special envoy to Ireland, Richard Haas was preparing for a meeting with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. Under the heading, “ How America held the IRA over a barrel,” Ruddock writes:

“After a few minutes of talking about ‘inching forward’ towards the peace process, Haas finally snapped. ‘If any American, service personnel or civilian, is killed in Colombia by the technology the IRA supplied then you can f**k off,’ he shouted, finger jabbing towards Adam’s chest. ‘Don’t tell me you know nothing about what’s going on there, we know everything about it,’

His successor Mitchell Reiss was guardedly critical of aspects of the Blair strategy, as recorded by Jonathan Powell in his book; “Great hatred, little room” which Reiss reviewed.

“Yet there were indications that No. 10 had more room for manoeuvre than it realised. In July 2005, the IRA had finally agreed to decommission all its weapons. At the last minute, Adams called No. 10 to demand that some of the weapons not be destroyed so that the IRA could arm itself against possible attacks from dissident members. Unless this was allowed, he threatened, decommissioning would not proceed. The Blair government conceded, but wanted to check with Dublin. Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell refused to acquiesce in the backsliding, despite enormous pressure. Powell told Adams of the problem, and Adams gave way. Decommissioning took place as planned.”

Reiss diplomatically chides Powell for underplaying the US role and thereby, gives his assessment of its importance:

It would be inaccurate to claim too large a role for the United States in the peace process, but it seems a bit churlish for Powell to white out America from the process almost entirely. The “Four Horsemen” (Hugh Carey, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy), drew international attention early on to the discrimination against the Catholic community in education, employment and housing in Northern Ireland, and they balanced their intervention by also denouncing IRA violence. The Clinton Administration energised the peace process by inviting Adams to the White House and then by devoting time and attention at the highest levels in order to sustain political momentum.

The contribution of George Mitchell, whom Powell barely mentions in his chapter on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, was critical in guiding the political parties to agree on a framework for peacefully resolving the Troubles. My predecessor, Richard Haas, met with Sinn Fein leaders on 9/11 and forcefully explained that terror would no longer be tolerated; just four days later, the IRA agreed to start decommissioning its arsenal. At a St. Patrick’s Day event in 2005, with Adams sitting in the front row, Senator John McCain denounced the IRA as a bunch of “cowards”; back in Belfast three weeks later, Adams called for the IRA to completely decommission its weapons and commit itself to a purely peaceful and political way forward. And over the years, Irish Americans have donated tens of millions of dollars for reconciliation efforts and generously hosted delegations from both traditions when they visited the United States. “

While US interest in our affairs will survive both the uneasy political settlement and the economic turndown, it’s hard not to conclude that John Cain would fail to pick up the torch. And that the glory days of hobnobbing with the US establishment are over – except to hand over a bowl of shamrock.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London