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A View North North now firmly on White House agenda

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The revelation last week that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had written a series of letters to Irish political leaders pledging that Northern Ireland would remain on the agenda should he occupy the White House next January is an important indication of how the issue is now seen in the American political context.

It has been the aim of every Irish-American political leader and activist since the Fenian days to get the "Irish" question onto the U.S. political agenda. Their efforts were characterized by a spectacular lack of success. Even in the 19th century when U.S. administrations still had the memory of recent wars with Britain, there was little or no enthusiasm for an Irish adventure, whether the White House was Democratic or Republican. But in the year 2000, that has changed dramatically.

George W. Bush, as he goes into the home stretch of a tight presidential race, wrote to Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Social Democratic and Labor Party leader Seamus Mallon and Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble. He pledged that America would remain engaged in the Irish peace process, would appoint an envoy if necessary, and called for the implementation of the Patten police reforms.

In years gone by, such a forthright commitment from an American presidential hopeful would have caused consternation in the State Department and in British and Unionist political circles. Just over 20 years ago, when President Jimmy Carter decided to make a statement on Northern Ireland, the Foreign Office, the British Embassy, and the State Department moved heaven and earth to try to stop him. In the end, they failed. Carter’s statement of August 1977 condemned those Americans who supported violence in Ireland, and pledged U.S. aid to the North in the event of a settlement being reached that both sides of the community could accept.

It was all of seven short paragraphs, padded in the inoffensive language of diplomacy. But it rumbled down the corridors of power in Washington, London, Dublin and Belfast. Its echoes can still be heard in Bush’s letter last week.

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The importance of Carter’s statement was not so much in what he said but the fact that he said it at all. It was the first time in the history of the United States that a sitting president had made a policy statement on Northern Ireland. The issue had slipped on to the White House agenda. Admittedly, it was very far down that agenda. Indeed, after August 1977, Carter did not address the issue again in any depth. However, a precedent had been set and a taboo broken.

Eight years later, President Reagan became the first Republican president to become involved in the Northern Irish problem when he convinced Margaret Thatcher not to be so dismissive of the New Ireland Forum’s report, drafted under the direction of John Hume. Reagan had intervened at the request of the Irish government after Thatcher had given her famous "out, out, out" response to the three options for a political solution offered in the report. The end result of Reagan’s intervention was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

Northern Ireland was definitely on the U.S. political agenda, though not very prominently. The problem for any administration was that there was no obvious solution in sight. The 1985 accords had not brought peace, even if they had temporarily slowed the political rise of Sinn Fein. The prestige of the American president is not brought to bear on a political problem unless there seems a reasonable likelihood of finding a solution. By early 1994, when President Clinton was in his first term, the elements of a possible resolution of the conflict were beginning to fall into place.

Gerry Adams and John Hume had been engaged in a series of negotiations which Hume thought held out the hope for a settlement. The Provisional IRA was heading towards calling a cease-fire. The time was propitious to "take risks" for peace. Clinton plunged in, his first major move being to lift the visa ban on Adams coming to the U.S. Six months later, the Provisionals declared a cease-fire and the peace process (however shakily) was launched. Northern Ireland was decisively on the White House agenda and it would stay there during both terms of the Clinton presidency.

This is the political context in which George W. Bush sat down to pen his letters to Ahern, Mallon, and Trimble. Bush not only affirmed support for the peace process but notified the Irish political leaders of his position on police reform. He wrote:

"I am also encouraged by the work of Chris Patten and his commission in reviewing and recommending reform of the police in Northern Ireland. I appreciate the importance of traditions and symbols, and the sensitivities of the communities in Northern Ireland on this issue, and support and full implementation of the Commission’s recommendations."

Bush also pledges that, if needed, he would "appoint a special envoy to further facilitate the search for lasting peace, justice, and reconciliation."

Back in 1992, when candidate Bill Clinton told a group of Irish-American reporters that if elected he would look at the appointment of a special envoy he provoked a storm of criticism from the British media — the usual condescending drivel they direct against Americans who dare to show interest in the North.

Eighteen years on, the Republican candidate can make a similar pledge without causing a ruffle in the British media.

However, some in Britain, particularly in the Conservative Party, are looking forward to a Republican victory in the expectation that a Bush White House might take the pressure of them on issues such as the North. There is an atavistic longing in such quarters for the old days when the North was a matter for the State Department and the British Embassy. But Bush’s letter will shake that hope somewhat. The fact that he has come out strongly on the need to implement Patten and promise a continuing U.S. interest in the Irish peace process proves that once an issue gets onto the U.S. presidential agenda, it is not so easy to remove it — as long as the political gains outweigh the political costs.

In 1994, Clinton survived the initial propaganda assault from British interests (in the media and elsewhere) when he made the North an issue. Bush’s Irish intervention testifies to the fact that it is now a manageable issue. Can Al Gore be far behind?

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