Category: Archive

Analysis Clinton’s legacy of concern for Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

This St. Patrick’s Day, President Clinton will make what is being described as a "significant" statement on Northern Ireland — yet another indication of his administration’s continued involvement in the issue.

However, the recent setbacks in the peace process mean that no one is holding out much hope that it will signal a major breakthrough.

As a result March 17, 2000, at the White House, may well be somewhat anti-climatic. It should have been the St. Patrick’s Day party to end all St. Patrick’s Day parties. If, that is, the political institutions envisioned in the Good Friday agreement had been functioning, with their respective ministers, unionist and nationalist, arriving on President Clinton’s doorstep to be welcomed as living proof of his administration’s most successful foreign-policy initiative. It would have been the happy culmination of a period of U.S. interventionism in the Northern Ireland problem without historical precedent.

Instead, this year it will be a procession of the failed and the frustrated who will make the pilgrimage to the last St. Patrick’s Day bash of the Clinton presidency. Among them, Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble, the first minister of the short-lived government; Martin McGuinness, its Sinn Fein minister for education, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, will probably be more concerned to make sure that it is not their party that gets the blame for the debacle of Feb. 11 than to make any serious attempt to resolve the present crisis. Not that there won’t be a last-ditch effort on the part of the Clinton administration to try to unsnarl the logjam. Already, a senior Clinton official, Jim Steinberg, has been in Belfast talking to the main peace process participants. This week, however, he ruled out any possibility of a Dayton-style initiative, and instead it is expected that there will be a series of bilateral meetings. But regardless of the outcome, the Irish legacy of President Clinton will loom large, spanning as it does almost the entire term of his administration.

Perhaps the single most important decision taken in relation to Northern Ireland during that period was the first: the decision to waive the visa ban that had for years barred Adams’s entry into the U.S. The State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Attorney General’s office all advocated that the ban should not be waived. Britain, the U.S.’ closest ally was vehemently opposed. Yet Clinton granted the waiver on Jan. 29 and Adams entered the U.S. two days later. The date should go down in U.S. history as the moment when Northern Ireland left the agenda of the State Department and was placed firmly within the confines of the White House. There it has remained for the last six years.

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In the intervening period, Clinton lifted the ban on Sinn Fein fund-raising in the U.S., opened the door of the White House to Sinn Fein leaders, hosted a Northern Ireland investment conference, and dispatched George Mitchell to Northern Ireland on three occasions, once to deal with the decommissioning issue and twice to guide the political negotiations to a successful conclusion. As well, Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Northern Ireland. All of these initiatives came at crucial moments in the peace process and helped it make progress under often difficult and frustrating conditions.

Will the twilight of the Clinton administration also mean the twilight of Northern Ireland as an issue on the White House agenda? As the guests gather this week in Washington that must be on their minds, when next year their host will likely be either George W. Bush or Al Gore.

Neither candidate for the presidency has the strong personal interest in Northern Ireland that Clinton possesses. During the recent Irish-American Presidential Forum held in John Jay College in Manhattan, Gore was the only one of the candidates to appear. Though he did not take any questions from the floor — nullifying the forum format — he did make a strong commitment to keeping Northern Ireland on the agenda.

"I will push the process forward," he declared before several hundred people. "In a Gore administration we’d stand ready at a moment’s notice to help. Peace and justice in Northern Ireland will always be my cause."

How much of this is pure rhetoric remains to be seen. But it is generally the case that once an issue gets on to the White House agenda it is not easily removed. A tradition is set, especially in the field of foreign policy where American presidents have much more freedom of action than on the home front. Gore has already played a role. It was the vice president who in the fall of 1994 made the first direct contact between the White House and Sinn Fein when he telephoned Gerry Adams shortly after the IRA cease-fire. It was also the vice president who held out a hand to reassure the Unionists and help balance what may have been seen as too much Irish nationalist influence in the administration.

Historically speaking, perhaps it will not matter so much that Clinton was unable in the end to celebrate the setting up of devolved government in Belfast as the successful conclusion of his involvement in the Irish peace process. His legacy will be viewed as being that of the president who set an important precedent for U.S. intervention in Northern Ireland, one that his successors will not find it so easy to abandon.

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