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Clinton’s keeping his distance

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella-Garraty

and Ray O’Hanlon

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton will likely urge compromise, but the White House is this week dampening suggestions that the president will openly move to break the peace process impasse when leaders of eight Northern Ireland parties turn up in Washington next week to receive awards.

Three years since Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Northern Ireland, there are those who would like to see Clinton inject himself, and the prestige of his office, into the troubled peace process once again.

But the White House is clearly wary and was this week downplaying even the need for such intervention.

“The key right now is that no one is dying on the streets,” said a White House official who is directly working on Washington’s input in the peace process.

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“There are those who want to only point out the downside, but it would be unlikely that the president would become involved in the level of detail that some have asked for,” said the official.

U.S. peace broker George Mitchell did visit Ireland, North and South, in recent days, meeting with several leaders, including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Sinn FTin’s leader, Gerry Adams, appealed for Mitchell to return to a more intimate role in helping the parties surmount the hurdles posed by disagreement over the structuring of North-South bodies, specifically their scope and number, and the thorny issue of arms decommissioning.

Mitchell declined the invitation. Sinn FTin has also indicated that it would like to see direct intervention by President Clinton when members of the eight parties come to Washington on Dec. 7 and 8 to jointly receive — along with Clinton himself — this year’s Averell Harriman Democracy Award.

For Sinn FTin, the Washington event presents a timely opportunity for the kind of direct U.S. action it desires.

“It was America that broke the logjam before,” Sinn FTin’s U.S. representative, Rita O’Hare, told the Echo. “They could help in solving this serious stall in the way the parties are supposed to operate according to the [Good Friday] agreement.”

Sinn FTin says, rightly, that IRA weapons decommissioning only has to begin before the May 2000 deadline outlined in the Stormont accord. Unionists, led by UUP leader and Assembly First Minister-designate David Trimble, want the decommissioning process to begin now.

With regard to cross-border bodies, O’Hare warned that any optimism with regard to the emergence of agreed bodies was premature.

“We don’t have issues on the all-Ireland dimension set. The White House can turn the international spotlight on to move that issue, and the formation of the [Assembly] executive, forward,” she said.

One aspect of the argument over the proposed bodies concerns numbers. The Irish government, and the North’s republicans and nationalists, favor 10 bodies. Unionists want seven. Unionists also favor a more limited role for the bodies once they are set up.

Meanwhile, there has been no Irish government request for the president to get directly involved when the party leaders arrive in Washington, an Irish diplomatic spokesman said.

The Irish government would appear to be content for now with the White House monitoring the situation while throwing in an occasional suggestion.

However, if work on the North-South institutions seriously founders in the next few days, it is possible that the Irish government will look to Washington for more direct assistance.

“The poker game could move if things go badly,” the Irish official said.

The Harriman awards, meanwhile, are being presented to Clinton and the North leaders by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The group has been involved with reconciliation efforts in Northern Ireland since the 1980s and has established a particularly close relationship with the SDLP.

The late William Averell Harriman, after whom the award is named, was, at various times, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, U.S. secretary of commerce and governor of New York.

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