Why George Bush made the call to Cameron

Why did Dubya make his first foreign intervention since retirement over the micro-politics of Northern Ireland? It can’t have been all down to the magic of Shaun Woodward. On the This Week programme last night ( late on), Andrew Neil’s team remained puzzled. This is the same George Bush who favoured a tougher line than Blair against the IRA and who yet would not accept the argument (if he had ever heard it) that transferring Justice powers is merely dancing to SF’s tune. Bush’s former NI envoy and leading foreign affairs guru Mitchell Reiss says we shouldn’t be surprised. The President was heavily involved throughout and (he implies) was more even handed than Clinton. He was deeply moved by the McCartneys’ campaign. I haven’t nailed down the source (Pete has probably filed it), but I believe we have Reiss to thank along with PD Justice minister Michael McDowell for turning the spotlight on paramilitary criminality, at a time when Blair was still accepting the Adams line of not rocking the Provo boat. Were unionists suitably grateful? Not in Tuesday’s vote. From Reiss’s article

This was the same president who would subsequently overrule his NSC staff in late 2006 when he believed that it would enhance the chances for peace if Gerry Adams was allowed to visit the United States, a policy I supported because Adams had fulfilled his promise to move his constituency to support the rule of law. The decision also showed that Bush would reflexively favor no particular religious, ethnic, or political group (even when it might have been advantageous to do so for domestic political reasons). What mattered most was advancing the cause of peace.

Reiss’s magisterial review of Blair chief of staff Jonathan Powell’s memoir Great Hatred, Little Room endorses the Blair achievement but criticises him for appeasing SF at key junctures when he should have called their “ploy and bluff.” In other words, the post 9/11 Bush administration argued in favour of a harder line than the Brits and took a different stance from the Clinton administration. Autres temps, autre moeurs.

The British government never seemed to ask why any of the Northern Ireland political parties would ever agree on closure when they could always expect to extract more concessions at the next meeting or after the next crisis. As the promise of the Good Friday Agreement gradually receded from view, ongoing paramilitary violence and criminality deepened public cynicism and caused Northern Ireland’s economy to fall further behind the Republic of Ireland’s. Most of my friends in Northern Ireland endured this seemingly interminable process stoically, but I dare say none would recommend the ordeal as a model for other countries.

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