An open briefing for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

First of all, welcome back Madam Secretary and thanks for calling. Second, despite all the nasty headlines, do not panic! It’s not a patch on what was going on when your husband was last in charge. We’ve stopped burning Catholics and isolated Protestants. We’re just after liberals now. What follows is not necessarily a popular analysis, nor one that’s widely held, but I offer it in good faith.

  1. One of the first things a ganger teaches his labourers is that you keep on digging until you get to dry ground. Foundations that are slopped into a wet bottomed trench almost certainly mean that the building will eventually wobble if not fall. In 1998 not all of our trenches were sunk in dry earth. For instance there was no universal recognition of the police, bill of rights, decommissioning of paramilitary arms or a fair and equitable way of dealing with our past. All were put on an indeterminately long finger. But a journey was begun, if as much in hope as expectation.
  2. Much like the role of sliced debt has played within the current financial crisis, many of the tensions from the previous conflict were baked into our post conflict institutions. The designation system which under the Belfast Agreement disenfranchised those for whom the tags Nationalist and Unionist were inappropriate from choosing the First and deputy First Minister. For the most part it has bought us a period in which peace has become the norm. In most cases, the substantive competing claims over sovereignty have been relegated to small, regulated and, on occasion, mischievously orchestrated, sham fights.
  3. Following amendments brought in 2006/7 during and following the St Andrews Agreement the choice of who became First and deputy First Minister fell into the hands of the two largest parties (rather than the Unionist and Nationalist blocs at large). Powers were added that allowed those two main parties to enforce blocks on ministers of other parties, as well as each others. Power (or at least means to enforce a lack of it) was further centralised.
  4. Centralisation of power has led to an incumbency of ‘former extremists’. The ‘Former’ here being key to understanding the critical success of Northern Ireland’s famous peace process. In neither party is commitment an issue. Both are held to have channelled their energies more efficiently and effectively than those in the dwindling ‘former moderate middle’. These have all struggled (albeit to different degrees) to find a role for themselves in a harsh, spare landscape sculpted and shaped by the new ‘immoderate centre’.
  5. Think of Congress deadlocked by two beligerent blocks – Teamsters and Tea Partiers – who pride themselves in not being willing (or, in fact, able) to cut a deal with the other. In fact we went off our own vertiginous fiscal cliff years ago because, unlike the US, we’re too small for anyone else to have noticed and we still retain the pathology of a nasty political psychosis that makes the application of punitive action broadly inadvisable. As a result, moral hazard abounds.
  6. Unlike most normal democratic societies, it is the disenfranchised whose political sensibilities drive the game at Stormont. Sinn Fein is headquartered squarely in the middle of working class and radicalised Catholic west Belfast; whilst the DUP is less unambiguously based on the edge of Protestant inner east. Both recognise the power of the tribal to rally troops to the flag. In the case of Belfast City Council this week a single decision to remove the national flag, unleashed mayhem not on Catholics, but upon the heads of post nationalist liberals whose party’s only sin was to facilitate a decision for which – according to the council’s own consultation – there was no popular demand.
  7. At the same time in the new City of Newry the council set aside a report from the Equality Commission on promoting good relations with a local minority of just 10% to name a children’s play park after a Hunger Striker, who’s gun was associated by a PSNI Historical Enquiries Team with the massacre of ten Protestant workmen in 1975. Total war has gone, but wartime mentalities still play an important role in shaping and re-shaping of community relations.
  8. The centralisation of power has also given rise to a certain intolerance of external criticism. The numbers of journalists outside the institutions are vastly outnumbered by those working in PR on the inside. The First Minister regularly complains of his administration’s bad press. Becoming a political correspondent which was once the plum job in all local newspapers, is increasingly seen as the one no one wants. The pickings are spare and too many ‘stupid questions’ gets you a reputation of being an enemy of the peace process. As a result there is little scope for contention over policy, party performance or pursuing an aggressive journalistic agenda.
  9. Perhaps as a result of the lack of a critical public discourse, there is an ongoing, slow burn crisis of  purpose within the former moderate middle. In the cases of the UUP and the SDLP they may already be in terminal decline as they are sucked into the after tow of their larger tribal brothers and sisters.  Each accuses the other of tribal acquiescence, but in truth there is little evidence that either has  looked for a new role for itself in the  unfolding new history of Northern Ireland. And although Alliance may have an opportunity in the current crisis to enlarge its footprint, like the other two it is not clear that they have either the capacity or the inclination to scale beyond their Greater Belfast liberal bubble.
  10. There are two Northern Irelands. There’s a new one that is still trying to give birth to a new way of seeing the wider world, Northern Ireland’s place in it and how each citizen might relate positively to one another. And there’s the old one, breed by at least one generation of murder, betrayal not to mention remote and dysfunctional government. Every now and then someone presses a tribal button and the door swings open on the abiding suspicion, alienation and loathing between neighbours.

And one final separate thought. Much consideration was given in the early days of the process to what it might take to end conditions of war and install new conditions that would help create positive clusters of peace. What’s not been considered (and its not clear how this can take place without some form of autonomous bottom up action), is how can freedom of expression and critical discourse can be mainstreamed in a place like Northern Ireland where public subsidy is ubiquitous?

As Alexis de Tocqueville once memorably put it, “a government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry… it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands”.

That I suspect must needs arise from a renewed critical analysis of politics here, and the re-introduction of some form of competitive politics. It’s unlikely to arise from idle talk about changing the rules to allow an official opposition. It may even arise from inside one or both of the two incumbent tribal champions, though it never will if only one of them is bought fully into the project, whatever they mutually decide that is.

Come back see us in another ten, or twelve even?


  • Eamonn McCann

    “First of all, welcome back Madam Secretary and thanks for calling.”


    eamonn mccann

  • Alias

    “Come back see us in another ten, or twelve even?”

    I don’t think you’ll get another call from Madam any time soon if the mantra “Time is a great healer” was your principal prescription to her!

    To rely on time is to acknowledge the impotence of politics to resolve the problem of two competing nations are supposed to share one state. In any other context where there is no de jure nation-state such as Madam’s country or Spain, for examples, a common nationalism of American or Spanish is engineered and used as a substitute de facto nation-state.

    The same holds true in the UK, but the core problem there is that the uniting common nationalism of British is rejected by almost half of NI’s population. There are attempts to resolve that by engineering a common nationalism of Northern Irish but that will take a tad longer than 10 or twelve years…

    And in regard to the Kingsmills’ murderer, what’s the point in vilifying that pawn for his crimes when the godfathers who organised them are celebrated as ‘international peacemakers’ by Madam’s husband and Madam?

  • Mick Fealty

    See point 1, and work slowly through to the bottom. At no stage did I say we’d have it sorted through time. In fact I don’t know how or even if it will get sorted.

    But we do have enough of a pattern now to see how some things have and have not worked. I suspect we will have to embrace the possibility of a period of chaos kicking in before it resolves itself again.

    Eamonn, I was trying for formal, and it came out obsequious. Any comments on any of the main points?

  • Brian Walker


    I know of course that the open letter is a device for a thoughtful piece of political analysis. It’s amazing isn’t it that Mrs Clinton, with her permanent round trip around the world lecturing all and sundry coming to an end, should still bother to take us in on her swan song. For the US In world terms NI is still a tiny model of success for an area that is still fairly troubled. If success was complete, would she still bother to come?

    It’s heresy to say so but what a pity that the place is dominated by working class parties which find it difficult to suppress or (as yet ) buy off the parts of their dispossessed core that remind them of their origins.

    For me there are two consolations in the present political set up . One, that real power in Ni is widely disseminated and is still largely exercised by the the great and the good circumscribed by a battery of legislation and bureaucracy and supervised by HMG with the general endorsement of Dublin.

    Now you might find that demeaning but I find it reassuring in the meantime. I’d like it to be otherwise and in time, it may be. To put it kindly, our politicians are still walking up the learning curve. We should probably rely on their journey to make the difference, more than on structural changes in Stormont.

    Two- and this is the bigger, more encouraging point – the grounds for dispute are inexorably narrowing. Wrong to be too dogmatic of course after a second night of spreading trouble but even so, true I think… This not Drumcree or Holy Cross, much less the 1970s and 80s.
    Behind the scenes the parties are well aware of their responsibilites for the upsurges they themselves foment.

    I’m sure the real Eamonn McCann would hate this comment- can it be him above? I too would like to know more..

  • Republic of Connaught

    If was wasn’t for the Clintons’ more hands on involvment in the ‘Irish problem’ – often against the wishes of the British government – then I doubt we would have got the GFA. So I should think the Clinton family will always get a warm welcome to any part of the Emerald Isle. And I’m quite sure a large majority in any one of the 32 counties would agree.

  • Greenflag

    ‘Come back see us in another ten, or twelve even?’

    In 10 years Mrs Clinton may be into her second term as the USA’s first female President . Northern Ireland will still be largely where it is today -going nowhere slowly , but even that is a form of progress for the province.

    Thanks are indeed in order as the harsh reality is that without USA support and the tireless work of George Mitchell -Northern Ireland would this week be into it’s 42nd consecutive year of blood letting -assuming it had not succumbed to even more widespread conflict and sectarian killings in the late 1980’s and 1990’s and Thatcher had been forced to impose a ‘repartitionist ‘ solution as the only practical alternative to unending stupidity and violence.

    As for these latter day loyalists burning out Alliance Party offices and threatening AP councillors and attacking families like the Bowers in Bangor – these flag loyalists are gutless cowards. LIke the bully who prefers to attack women or those smaller than himself these people are truly the dregs of whatever is left of the mad dogs of ultra loyalism .

    They’re still learning ‘democracy’ the hard way but there are some it has to be said who will NEVER learn not even the hard way 🙁

    Perhaps 25 years might be a better date for a return to NI perhaps even to celebrate it’s demise as a political entity ?

  • Kevsterino

    I find it ironic that, even with the current flag angst, the GFA compromise made possible through the efforts of Clinton (but much more by George Mitchell) has enabled more self government in Northern Ireland, my own US government has lost its ability to compromise and govern my own country.

    Maybe we need to descend further into the abyss of civil division and conflict to make the public aware of the dangers of “not an inch” politics.

    Perhaps you can send over some of your own boys and girls to speak to Congress. Or maybe just to deliver Hume’s old “Single Transferable Speech”. “An Agreed America” seems currently out of our reach. Please send assistance.

  • Alias

    “At no stage did I say we’d have it sorted through time.”

    You did, but you now appear to be refuting a claim that wasn’t made, i.e. the qualified ‘though time alone.’

    That’s why Mandelson wanted to see the clowns riding bikes…

    The actual underlying dynamics of two nations competing with each other for control of one state, as I outlined them, are irreconcilable without the successful engineering of the common nationalism of Northern Irish. And given that the GFA ‘solution’ endorsed by Madam’s husband accentuates the divide between the two competing nations…

  • BluesJazz

    La Clinton could do no better than to praise the people who created the ‘peace’ here. The squaddies who stood between the sectarian factions and ground them down.
    The documentary on Operation Motorman was excellent tonight.

    Operation Banner created the terms of peace here, at considerable expense.

  • aquifer

    With the Middle East breaking into nasty bits Madam Secretary could be forgiven if she told us to get over ourselves.

  • I’m sympathetic to the comments above re US Senator George Mitchell, who was referenced repeatedly at a recent conference on USA relations with Northern Ireland.

    In our international project, Forum for Cities in Transition, Northern Ireland is used as a positive case study, as higher up the ladder of conflict transformation. But as in any divided society, underneath is always the potential to be drawn back to status quo ante.

  • Comrade Stalin

    The Clinton administration and particularly George Mitchell played a valuable and significant role in securing agreement here. We should feel privileged to have had their help.

    I love to tell the story of when I was over in the USA for the first time in the late 1990s and saw an interview with George Mitchell. I got to see him explain to the American public what the problems were over here. He did it perfectly, getting the point across in a way people could understand, while giving a nod to the various nuances.

    A lot of people – including a lot of Americans – are not aware of the extent to which the American political parties, and indeed embassies/consulates/etc, provide all kinds of assistance with political development in other countries. It’s particularly ironic in terms of Kevsterino’s observation above.

  • BluesJazz

    Her great work in the Middle East, especially how she told Israel to back off should be good to listen to.
    Netanyahu was really devastated by the way she told him not to build any more settlements. She really read the riot act to him, so she did. didn’t she?

  • Alias

    “If was wasn’t for the Clintons’ more hands on involvement in the ‘Irish problem’ – often against the wishes of the British government – then I doubt we would have got the GFA. So I should think the Clinton family will always get a warm welcome to any part of the Emerald Isle. And I’m quite sure a large majority in any one of the 32 counties would agree.” – Republic of Connaught

    The GFA is simply a re-statement of the British sovereignty over Northern Ireland and of is constitutional position given in the Government of Ireland Act 90 years ago that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

    The only difference is that the Irish were led by a sustained campaign of propaganda to elevate that which they formerly dismissed as “the Unionist veto” to the status of a principle which took precedence over their former claim to national 32-county self-determination.

    It is simply nonsense to suggest that Clinton advocated the cause of Irish nationalism in any way – he did not. His position on the British claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland is the exact same position that was held by every other US president preceding him, i.e. that British sovereignty over Northern Ireland was legitimate that the Irish claim to sovereignty was illegitimate and should be withdrawn.

    The US government always, without a single exception, supported the British claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland. They did that in support of British national interests. And Clinton was no exception to that.

  • Greenflag

    Alias@7 December 2012 at 4:05 am.

    Wakey wakey Alias . The GFA is the only game in town short of ‘repartition ‘ and the latter possibility is now seen as no longer viable or practical due to the changing demographics of NI .

    The USA did what it could to bring about ‘peace’ within Northern ireland .The fact that the province cannot become part of a UI without the support of a majority of the voters within the current NI State is just common sense and reflects the realpolitik of the situation and nothing else .

    ROC is correct . And yes the Irish are not ‘naive ‘ enough to believe that any power be they the USA or even the UK have the power to bring about a UI without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland . Technically they could of course just like technically the UK could have forced the Free State back into the Union post 1922 with Churchill’s infamous 250,000 regrouped Black and Tans .

    Just not worth the political fallout or the lives/trade/property lost nor the continuation of another half a millenium of Irish freedom fighting/terrorism or whatever you’re having yourself .

    And that about sums up the GFA . It’s an improvement on what went before for the former ‘minority ‘ population in Northern Ireland . Next week’s census results will probably show an even closer numbers gap between the nationalist and unionist communities .

  • Greenflag

    bluesjazz @ 7 December 2012 at 12:27 am

    ‘Netanyahu was really devastated by the way she told him not to build any more settlements. She really read the riot act to him, so she did. didn’t she?’

    The Israeli Government is determined to split the West Bank territory into two halves separated by a strip of Israeli occupied ‘new settlements . This is just more of the same as has gone on before and another vain attempt to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian State or to make such a state even more non contiguous and thus less viable economically and politically .

    Under Netanyahoo’s leadership Israel is on it’s way to becoming a Pariah State .Without USA aid and support thats where it would be already !