Category: Archive

Analysis In Washington, the show must go on

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

By noon on St. Patrick’s Day, as guests gathered at the British Embassy in Washington for the annual Irish bash, Unionist leader David Trimble was already attempting to downplay his remarks made earlier about the possibility of going into government again without prior arms decommissioning.

As the bevy of butlers bore silver trays laden with drinks from guest to guest, Trimble told a reporter that his remarks did not represent a change of line. After all, he explained, the UUP had gone into the ill-fated executive in December on that basis. He claimed that his controversial remarks — "We are prepared to be involved in a fresh sequence which probably will not involve arms up front" — when taken in context was actually a hardening of his position in relation to decommissioning.

It did not seem that way to Unionists back home who reacted with dismay and amazement at the reported speech, coming as it did just days before the crucial meeting of the party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, which over a month ago forced the British government to suspend the power-sharing executive because of the failure of the IRA to begin decommissioning. While being hailed by the Irish government for showing a new flexibility, Trimble was being threatened with the possibility a real leadership challenge at the UUC meeting on March 25. The anti-agreement faction of the UUP could not believe its good luck.

Trimble’s remarks proved to be the most dramatic, and puzzling aspect of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day activities in the nation’s capital, the last such gathering of the Clinton epoch. It added a touch of nervous uncertainty to what was overall a rather elegiac occasion — at least in mood.

For some, the mood was elegiac mixed with anger. At the British embassy bash, Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, who served so briefly in the power-sharing government as Trimble’s deputy first minister, called the latest twist in the long story of the peace process "grotesque." He was angry at how the suspension was handled, and in no mood for any more false dawns.

Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo

Subscribe to one of our great value packages.

Not many people were. Sinn Fein’s team kept a fairly low profile during the festivities. None appeared at the British Embassy’s lunch, and those who showed up at the party held by the Irish ambassador later in the evening — including Rita O’Hare, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams — did not linger long. Adams, after all, had said before leaving Ireland that he was going to Washington only out of a sense of "duty." They did not want to give the appearance of fiddling in Washington while the peace process burned in Belfast. Like Trimble, they were clearly aware of trouble among their ranks at home.

Indeed, they had reason for concern. For the first time since the peace process began, there were indications that the Adams-McGuinness leadership was in deep trouble, and Dublin knew it.

Of course, no one in either government would admit this publicly, and certainly not in the midst of St. Patrick’s Day party going. The tone struck by officials for public consumption was one of cautious optimism. The Irish government’s recently appointed minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen, was hoping that broadening the context of the debate, so that it was not exclusively focused on decommissioning, would help quench those fires. He talked about the urgency of normalizing and demilitarizing the situation in Northern Ireland, and of the need for politics there to catch up with the "new economics." The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, seized on Trimble’s statement as a sign that things could move forward and called on the IRA to respond. That may not prove to easy. But Ahern demonstrated what "normalization" might mean on another level.

One of the guests at the White House was Geraldine Finucane, the widow of Patrick Finucane, the murdered human rights lawyer around whose death controversy has swirled for more than a decade. When Ahern learned that she had not been introduced to the president, he took her by the hand and brought her to Clinton, with whom she had several minutes’ discussion. Fincuane later met with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and spent time also with Peter Mandelson, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, to press her case for a full public inquiry into her husband’s murder. That evening she appeared at the Irish ambassador’s party wearing a "Irish Americans For Hillary Clinton" badge.

At this level, normalization means the pursuit of justice. The Irish government is hoping that such contacts will help alleviate the nationalist community’s alienation from law and order by demonstrating that in the new dispensation, their grievances can be addressed.

Earlier, Mandelson, resorting to understatement, had noted, in his speech at the British embassy, that "time is slightly slipping away." He warned that the "generosity of spirit of America" must not be abused. It was, he said, "just not good enough to keep coming back here. . . . We must discharge our responsibilities."

"We cannot return and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without having repaid the generosity of America" and without having met "the expectations of the people of Northern Ireland" by fulfilling the terms of the Good Friday Agreement," he said. "It may not be easy, but I think it’s possible."

However, whatever optimistic noises the governments were making, there was a sense of foreboding, and a sense also that no one was quite sure of how to proceed with the task of reinstating the suspended institutions of government. There was little that emerged in public from the Washington gatherings that would suggest how things will be this time next year and who might be there to celebrate Ireland’s patron saint in such a lavish fashion.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese