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Clinton aide paves way for Ireland visit

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella-Garraty

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A top White House official, Dick Norland, is in Ireland this week, a move that reflects the Clinton administration’s growing concern about the widening differences over implementation of the Good Friday peace agreement.

Norland is also understood to be preparing the ground for a final Clinton presidential visit to Ireland in December.

The Clinton administration is especially unhappy with Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble’s attempts to exclude Sinn Féin ministers from performing some of their duties.

"We’re following the proceedings closely and continue to believe that implementation of the Good Friday accord would be enhanced by a focus on inclusion, not exclusion," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert after Saturday’s announcement in Belfast by Trimble that he would be barring Sinn Féin from participating in a cross-border ministerial group.

"We are urging reengagement by paramilitaries on all sides with the de Chastelain Commission and we will be consulting in the coming days with Irish and British governments on next steps."

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White House officials said privately that Trimble’s efforts to punish Sinn Féin for the IRA’s refusal to work with the de Chastelain decommissioning body was an effort to keep the more intransigent anti-agreement forces within his own party from ousting the first minister from his leadership position.

As understandable as that position may be, the administration is worried that this second act of withdrawing power from elected members of the Assembly will undermine nationalist faith in the political process.

Concern for the situation was so great that the White House dispatched Norland, its top adviser on Ireland, to perform some shuttle diplomacy between Belfast and Dublin.

Norland has had back-to-back meetings with representatives of all shades of political opinion. Despite the present unstable atmosphere, Norland is also on the ground to oversee arrangements for President Clinton’s visit to Ireland during the second week in December.

White House concern, meanwhile, has been reflected on Capitol Hill, where the House of Representatives International Relations Committee chairman, Ben Gilman, indicated his own worries.

"I am concerned that Unionist efforts to change the composition of the ministerial group, place a moratorium on policing reform, and conduct a review of the overall agreement are all obstacles that could unravel the progress made to date," Gilman said in a statement.

President Clinton has, meanwhile, continued to campaign for both his wife and other Democratic candidates in the run-up to Election Day.

And he has continued to cite Northern Ireland as an example of where U.S. input in a peace process has returned tangible rewards despite the occasional setbacks.

While in Queens, the president got a bit of his geography confused. He told the crowd of supporters of the first lady about a meeting earlier in the day at a diner.

"On the way out of the Jackson Hole Diner today there were two guys sitting outside drinking a beer, and I stopped and shook hands with them and they said hello to me, and I said, ‘where are you from in Ireland?’ " Clinton told the group.

"They said they were both from the same little village in County Clare," continued the president. "And I said, ‘Did you know each other as children?’ They said, "Yes, but we didn’t like each other until we came to America.’ And I thought, oh, if I could just hold that thought."

Jackson Hole Wyoming is a bit of a distance from Jackson Heights, but the crowd did not seem to mind the verbal slip.

Clinton said while campaigning in New York last week he had come in contact with quite a number of Irish. He said he’s been asked often whether it was his Irish ancestry that drew him to assist in the peace process. He responded: "No administration had ever tried to play a constructive role in resolving the difficulties in Northern Ireland before, for fear of interrupting our special relationship with Great Britain.

"I finally concluded that Great Britain would be better off with a minor interruption where, over the long run, they had a long-term settlement in Northern Ireland that was consistent with the interests of the people of the United States."

Clinton said that over the years, the British had come to accept American help in the process, and he was still cautiously optimistic.

"We’re not out of the woods yet in the Irish peace process," he said. "There is still some work to be done to get the police force right and to get the decommissioning finished. But it’s a lot, lot different than it was eight years ago, and for that I’m grateful."

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