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A View North Peace efforts are Clinton’s legacy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

U.S. presidents when looking to leave a legacy often turn to foreign policy, that being an area where they are freer from the constraints imposed by domestic considerations. President Clinton is no exception. In the waning months of his presidency, he might well look abroad for a monument to his eight years in office and avoid the bad memories that events nearer home may generate.

What he sees is probably more alarming than reassuring. One of his most important initiatives, the Isr’li peace process, in which he has invested so much time and energy, is in a state of crisis. Any sought-for legacy based on his Middle East contribution would be on very shaky ground.

But in Northern Ireland, despite the lurching from one crisis to the next, there is much surer ground for a celebration of "the Clinton legacy." There, his influence has arguably made much more of a difference than in the Middle East. It may well be hard for some Irish Americans to stomach, but the truth is that Clinton’s intervention in Ireland was decisive. He could well go down in history as the U.S. president who did make a difference to the fate of the North.

There is a great irony in this.

Traditionally, when the British government thought of Irish-American influence, they shuddered in horror. A vision of a sort of St. Patrick’s Day orgy of sentimental green-beer-swilling IRA supporters with shamrocks growing out of their ears sprang into mind. Irish-American influence only meant one thing: a vicarious Irish nationalism run rampant without heed to the delicacy of the Northern Irish situation or to the complexity of its politics. This view was backed up by the influence of the U.S. Justice and State Departments, where a kind of old-boys-club relationship existed with the British Embassy in Washington.

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In fact, the Irish-American lobby that caught Bill Clinton’s attention when he was a candidate, and later utilized it when he became president, achieved the very opposite to what was feared and predicted by the British and their Anglophilic allies in America. Far from becoming the dupe of sentimental Irish Americans in love with "The Boys Of The Old Brigade," it succeeded it bringing the Provisional IRA’s 25-year-old campaign of violence to a halt and launching the republican movement down the road of political respectability (if that’s not an oxymoron).

The mistake made by the British and their pals in the Washington political establishment was in their failure to grasp the nature of the change that was affecting the republican movement, and the nature of the Irish-American lobby itself.

Taking their line from the British, the State Department cast a jaundiced eye on claims that the Provisional IRA was serious about becoming involved in a peace process. The Irish knew better. Through American Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, and her brother Sen. Edward Kennedy, the then Irish taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who in turn was listening to John Hume, convinced the Clinton administration that the time had come for it to move on the Irish question. Candidate Clinton had affirmed he would take action on questions such as the visa ban imposed on Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams. He had held back, waiting for the right moment, and inviting the scorn of those who thought that Clinton had never really meant to do anything on Northern Ireland in the first place. But in late 1993, he judged the time was ripe. Gerry Adams’s visa was approved.

Just over a year earlier, when doubts had been raised about the strength of the new president’s resolve to become involved in the North, the New York correspondent for the English Independent newspaper confidently quoted an "observer of the Irish-American political scene" as predicting: "If he get’s elected, all his promises to interest groups will get snowed under. When he is reminded of his promises, the likelihood is that the State Department will ensure that they never become policy."

It took considerable political courage for Clinton to advance into the Northern Irish quagmire. He did so not only against the furious opposition of the State Department and the British government, but also against many influential people within his party. The most powerful was Democratic rep. Tom Foley, then speaker of the House of Representatives. In a March 1993 interview with The Irish Times, Foley said it would be "stupid" and "wrong-headed" for the president to fulfill campaign promises in regard to the North and suggested that he had been "ill-advised."

History would prove otherwise.

A more accurate estimation of the true nature of Irish-American influence came in an interview with Bill Flynn, then CEO of Mutual of America, which appeared in the Financial Times in May 1994. In it Flynn said: "I think the real power of 44 million Irish Americans has been awakened. It’s available to anyone who wants to be a peacemaker."

In one sense, the British had fallen victim to their own propaganda, believing the image which they had conjured up of a fanatic Irish-American lobby, the puppet of IRA manipulators. In fact, when the Irish-American wing of the the pan-nationalist front came into play, it usually did so on the side of moderation. Once the British government had gotten over its old knee-jerk hostility to "outsiders" becoming involved in Northern Ireland, it found President Clinton’s interventions very useful, and at times crucial. The British Labor leader, Tony Blair, realized this right from the start of his administration when he took power in 1997. He showed none of the hesitation or resentment displayed at times by the Tories over American "interference."

Clinton’s Irish legacy is contained in the precedents he set. He put Northern Ireland on the White House agenda and showed that U.S. involvement could actually be helpful, facilitating a settlement. He did so by providing a bridge on which Nationalists and Unionists could meet. He proved to Unionists that American influence was not doomed to be one-sided and nationalist.

On Sept. 11, 1998, almost a year to the day after Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams met for their first face-to-face negotiations, former Sen. George Mitchell told an audience gathered on the White House lawn: "I was there from the first day [of the talks] to the last. There would not have been a peace agreement in Northern Ireland without the efforts of Bill Clinton."

That legacy will last.

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