By Jack Holland
Now that the long count in Florida has come to a conclusion, and George W. Bush is headed for the White House, it is an opportune moment to reflect on whether having a Republican or Democratic administration makes a difference to the course of political events in Ireland. Admittedly, the level of President Clinton’s involvement in the North is such that it is doubtful if any subsequent president, Republican or Democrat, will compare. But it is precisely because he has moved the North up the agenda that the conduct of his predecessor will be especially scrutinized.
From the start, Republican administrations have not shown much concern with the Irish problem as it manifested itself in the 20th century. In 1919, when Irish delegates approached the Republican administration to try to have Ireland included as one of the "small nations," during the negotiations that led to the treaty of Versailles, the message from President Woodrow Wilson was not encouraging. He told them more or less to drop dead. If World War I had been fought — as the Allies’ propaganda said — for the rights of small nations, then Ireland was not to be counted among them.
By 1919 Wilson would have been aware of the growing unrest in Ireland, and of the anger generated by the executions three years earlier of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion. But even after the December 1918 general election in Ireland revealed a clear majority in favor of Irish independence, Wilson showed that there was no chance of the U.S. doing anything that would embarrass its chief ally, Britain. To Wilson, the Irish issue was just an irritant to Anglo-American relations. He reflected ruefully: "The only circumstances which seem to stand in the way of an absolutely cordial cooperation with Britain by practically all Americans is the failure so far to find a satisfactory form of self-government for Ireland."
World War II cemented those Anglo-American connections, and confirmed the so-called "special relationship" between the two powers. The only hiccup came when the British government threatened to extend conscription to Northern Ireland, and repossess the ports on the Irish coast that it deemed vital to its war in the North Atlantic. Britain was quietly warned that if it acted upon these policies it would cause problems in the U.S. among Irish Americans, making it harder for America to come in on the side of the British. But the warning came from a Democratic president — FDR. The conscription proposal was abandoned, as was the threat to retake the ports. Would a Republican president have been that sensitive to the Irish-American dimension in 1940? It is doubtful.
The post-war scene tended to reinforce the rather Anglo-centric tendency of Republican administrations.
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Cold War policy, of course, dictated the strategies adopted toward regional conflicts, as the U.S. began to police the Third World after the fall of the British Empire. But Republican attitudes toward Britain also had a social dimension. As conservatives seeking a model, and not finding one in the egalitarian ways of American democracy, the social structures of Britain had (and still have) a profound appeal for a ruling class in search of some way of distinguishing itself socially.
The Republican Anglo-centric bent continued, more or less, through the 1960s and ’70s. Republicans and the British Conservatives in particular shared more or the less the same law-and-order mentality when it came to local conflicts. When President Nixon was in power, the Northern Ireland conflict exploded on to the front pages of newspapers in America. The response of the British government under Edward Heath was well in keeping with American foreign policy strategies under Republicans: puppet regimes were to be supported, and insurgents suppressed, brutally if need be. Hence there was not a whimper of protest from Nixon’s government throughout the early 1970s, when the Northern Ireland government attempted to smash the Provisional IRA with the British army, using internment, torture and shoot-to-kill tactics.
When Northern Ireland did come up as an issue between President Nixon and Prime Minister Heath, as it did in December 1971, during a meeting in Bermuda, it was viewed as a matter of law and order. What Britain wanted from the U.S. was for the FBI to do all it could to staunch the flow of money and arms to the Provisional IRA. The politics of the conflict did not matter. Nixon was happy to oblige, and the U.S. authorities began a decades-long investigation of Irish Northern Aid, attempting to dissuade Irish Americans from joining it or donating money to it.
This more or less set the cast for future Republican administrations in relation to Northern Ireland. Under President Reagan, however, there was a break with the past.
Reagan came into power in 1981, an American version of Margaret Thatcher, both in domestic and foreign policy. Both set out to defeat what they saw as the international terrorist conspiracy, which they alleged was backed by the Soviet Union or its puppet regimes. Nearly all regional conflicts were viewed in these terms, including that in Northern Ireland. Reagan’s closeness to Thatcher alarmed many in Ireland, but in the end it turned out to be useful when Irish diplomats in Washington lobbied for help in persuading the British to back the political initiative which eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This was a turning point in Anglo-Irish relations, and an important milestone in Anglo-American relations also. Reagan had broken the mold.
Unfortunately, the current president-elect’s father reverted to the norms of previous Republican administrations, winning kudos with the British by delivering IRA fugitive Joe Doherty into their hands after an extradition battle lasting almost nine years. However, it seems unlikely that in this matter at least George W. will follow in his father’s footsteps.
The Cold War is over. The principle of U.S. intervention in the North as a conflict resolver is firmly established thanks mainly to President Clinton; indeed, it is now welcomed by Britain. George W. Bush and his party have already thrown their support publicly behind the Good Friday peace agreement, demanding the full implementation of the Patten police reforms, for instance.
"Times have changed," said Susan Davis, the president of Irish American Republicans, which has been active since 1994 in trying to make the North an issue for the party. She admits that "Clinton did a wonderful job" in Ireland but affirms: "This administration won’t turn its back on Northern Ireland. I’m confident that we’ll build on the progress that’s been made."