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.

  • Pete Baker


    Mick noted the Mitchell Reiss review previously.

    On the topic of the US involvement here there was a very good article by Mary Alice Clancy in the Royal Irish Academy journal.

    And some speculative thoughts by myself.

  • Wub Webmadge

    People need to understand neanderthals.

  • Brian Walker

    Cool comprehensive thesis on a complex web, Pete,and an extremely useful article by Mary Alice Clancy which I’m afraid I didn’t notice first time round. I’m glad it’s got another airing. Good too that it reminds us of the diplomacy on the unionist side marked by the drift from Trimble to Paisley. I’m sure the lord of Lisnagarvey would be touched to know of the Queen’s concern for his election prospects. All history now.

  • dosser

    Trimble knows. Clancy was supervised by Bew and it’s a short hop for the ‘Red Baron’ (Bew) to take across the House of Lords to Trimble.

  • Jamie Gargoyle

    I’ve only read a copy of the Irish Voice once.
    Its headline on the Forum election was “Sinn Fein win big in Ulster poll”, although it did have a graph about six pages in showing they actually came 4th. It stated that “due to an unfair voting system, the nationalist SDLP got fewer seats than the loyalist DUP”, but strangely failed to mention that the use of D’Hondt in the Forum election was suggested and lobbied for by both the SDLP and DUP.
    Impressive spin. I’m told their GAA coverage is top notch though.

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    Clinton is history.
    Circumstances have changed.
    We do not matter.
    Obama will make his own decisions and, I suspect, that grandstanding claims of people he has since defeated are not likely to be part of his policy initiatives.

  • susan

    More than any Irish or British politician, certainly more than any Irish, British, or Irish American journalist, robust Teddy Kennedy would have the ear of a President Obama on all matters concerning the island of Ireland.

    Very sad to say, the Senator’s health is anything but robust.

  • Harry Flashman

    ‘Clinton is history.’

    No she’s not, not by a long shot, buyer’s remorse is already setting in big time with the Democrats, they’ll be on their knees begging Hillary’s forgiveness come November 5th.

  • How about we all start entering the grown up world where we neither tug the forelock to the Americans nor need their paternalism to fix our problems?

  • dosser

    A number of ‘peace processes’, for want of a better term, inevitably always involve exogenous, external actors to mediate and provide various levels of support. Such exogenous actors, of course, are not always impartial, but protagonists looking to augment their own vested interests. Conflicts are rarely, if ever, purely contained a specific national territory. The role of international agenices (ranging from the UN, EU, NATO) is thus to solidify best-practices and policies to facilitate peace building efforts. The ussage of ‘paternalism’ to describe the ‘global’ character of the NI peace process seems somewhat parochial and myopic.

  • Dave

    With a slush fund of $500 to spend on promoting his campaign, Obama can only manage to stay equal in the polls to the death-warmed-up appeal of McCain. If that doesn’t tell you that Obama is dud, then nothing will.

  • Nomad

    dosser, while there has always been a necessary “‘global’ character of the NI peace process” it seems “somewhat parochial and myopic” to truly believe that with every day of NI peaceful governance, Northern Ireland politics falls further and further down everyones list of priorities.

    This is a total non-story in the US I’m afraid. While I usually enjoy reading your articles, Brian, to posit “This issue exposes a split from the Clinton camp at exactly the wrong time” is to ENTIRELY give this ‘issue'(?) more credance than it is due.

  • Nomad

    Dave With a slush fund of $500 to spend on promoting his campaign… he has a *little* more than that.

  • Nomad

    With regards my own post, I meant to have written “Northern Ireland politics doesn’t fall further”. Hope my intent is clear.

  • dosser

    I agree that NI has largely disappeared from the radar; the so-called war on terrorism and continuing ethnonational conflict in the Balkans, as well as a proliferation of nascent conflicts elsewhere which threaten to refreeze the cold war, are of more salience.

    However, NI does still command some attention: particularly vis-a-vis the applicability of the NI peace model, like the utility of ‘consociationalism plus’ and courting of insurgents, to engender power-sharing in so-called divided societies.

    This argument has been refuted recently by Dean Godson and others, who simply refuse to countenance that the Middle East can be solved other than by the total destruction of insurgents.

    Their loss.

  • Earnan

    The amount of voters for whom this will decide their decision is astronomically small. Less than a thousand??

  • dosser

    That’s the rub: Irish America no longer provides a constituency worthy of pork barrel politics. They’re not, for instance, located en masse in a vital swing state like Florida, which contains the crazy Cuban-American community. In this way, Cuba will probably be more of an issue than Ireland.

  • Occassional Commentor

    The fact is, since the 9/11 attacks, any terrorism directed at the UK will be equated, more or less, as an attack on the US.

    What NI unionists should understand about Irish Catholics in the USA is that for the most part, they are far more center-right than almost any other constituency.

    The similarities between NI Catholics and Protestants, if I can put it in these terms, are far more than any differences. Obviously, a main difference is over politics, specifically a UI.

    But as NI Catholics come in from the cold, if treated fairly and respectfully, IMO any union with GB will be more emperiled by other reasons than the ancient animosities.

    But the days of unconditional support of physical force Irish Nationalism from the US Irish Catholic community are over. Once, it was like the Iraeli lobby, but no more.

    If a UI is to happen, it’ll be after everyone has forgotten that the issue has any meaning in their life.

  • Clinton is history.
    Circumstances have changed.
    We do not matter.
    Obama will make his own decisions and, I suspect, that grandstanding claims of people he has since defeated are not likely to be part of his policy initiatives.

    Holy shit – a Billie-Joe remarkable post I almost entirely agree with! I don’t agree with the idea that Hillary is history; last night was Hillary saying to the Democratic Party that whatever happens over the next two months there is much she wants to do for her party and her country. Assuming Obama wins, let’s start with healthcare reform. She either takes over as Senate leader to push it through the more difficult chamber of Congress, or she joins the cabinet as Secretary for Health and Human Services.

    Of course, you’re right on the substantive point that we shouldn’t need a proconsul and the Americans shouldn’t feel the need to supply one.

    What NI unionists should understand about Irish Catholics in the USA is that for the most part, they are far more center-right than almost any other constituency.

    Bizarre; urban Irish Catholics in the USA are as left wing as anyone else in big cities; suburban Irish Catholics do tend to contrast a little with their WASP neighbours, being like them basically centrist but tending to cluster a little to the left on economic issues and a little to the right on social issues.

    The days of Irish Americans being somehow a political breed apart in the American melting pot is, however, a good two generations out of date.

  • Occassional Commentor

    Sammy Morse: The neighbourhoods that I’ve seen of blue-collar Catholic Irish-Americans may have a worker’s union bent, but they would toss any communist straight in the bin. Yes they want better benefits and opportunities, but they are hardly radicals. Many served in the US military, and as a group identify far more with McCain than Obama. It’s perhaps too early to predict, but I don’t see a groundswell of support shifting to Obama merely because he has chosen Senator Biden, who is Catholic, as his vice presidential running mate.

    As for more affluent Catholic Irish-Americans, many are more liberal in outlook, in common with that economic class in general. But I would still say that even this sub-group is generally more conservative than its peers.

    These are of course my own opinions based on my own experiences.

    And let me just add that there is hardly a person in the US who is Protestant and also identifies as Irish, and even not many that even know of the expression “Scotch-Irish”, or have any idea what it means.

  • New Yorker

    From January 20th 2009 the most influential person on all Irish matters in the US government will be Vice President Joe Biden. He knows Ireland and the issues well and has an affection for the land of his ancestors. As to Northern Ireland he will have a balanced perspective. He knows the history and, parties and many individuals there. He cannot abide lawbreakers or those who fudge the truth. He is not a Provo wannabe like Niall O’Dowd. O’Dowd favors an envoy because he might get to speak to the envoy whereas there would be a firmly shut door at the White House for him. Biden will not be as gullible as, for example, Richard Haas. The Obama statement on devolution of P and J was naive. In the new administration he would consult with VP Biden on anything to do with Irish matters and I have no doubt Biden would have advised him not to make that naive statement. Don’t forget Biden knows the histories and the character of many in the two parties in the Executive. And have no doubt that Obama and Biden will win this election. Running on the Bush record is certain death for McCain, even if that were not the case he is not in the same league as Obama by any measure.

  • latcheeco

    Again it will boil down to which is more unpalatable, high gas prices versus Obama’s name/skin color. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in South Boston or San Francisco or wherever your granny came from.It’s the economy except for some old maniacs running around in berets and aran jumpers in the north east nobody cares any more. People in Ireland don’t even care any more. The war in Ireland has been over/paused(take your pick) for over a decade. There’s no bad news anymore so out of sight out of mind.To be blunt it’s played out lads, it’s the hub of the universe no more. Who ever gets in will have bigger fish to fry.

  • they would toss any communist straight in the bin

    Yes, but there aren’t really many Communists in American politics these days.

  • Occassional Commentor


    Me: “Irish Catholics in the USA … are far more center-right than almost any other constituency.”

    You: “Bizarre; urban Irish Catholics in the USA are as left wing as anyone else in big cities…”

    Me: “(B)ut they would toss any communist straight in the bin.”

    You: “(B)ut there aren’t really many Communists in American politics these days.”

    Me: Cause and effect? It wasn’t all them, or even mostly them, of course, but it was Irish American patriotism that eventually endeared them to the American mainstream.

    The shame of Britain is that it couldn’t get the Irish in Ireland to feel the same as part of the UK.

    The opportunity for NI unionism’s continuation should be obvious.

  • Bohereen

    what amazes me is that Irish Americans still expect some leeway on their illegal workers when one of the election hot topics seems to be about how to control the “illegals”