There was a time — and not so long ago — when the notion of a U.S. president intervening in the Northern Ireland problem would have seemed fantastical. Now, since President Clinton put the problem on his administration’s agenda, his intervention is almost taken for granted every time a crisis or the threat of a crisis emerges.
First, there was the wrangling over decommissioning, which blocked the setting up of the shadow executive. More recently, political progress has been halted by the dispute over the scope and extent of the North-South bodies as envisioned in the Good Friday agreement.
It is known that some parties to the agreement, such as Sinn Fein, would dearly love the president to ride to the rescue, as he has done so often before. Indeed, Sinn Fein has called on him to get involved.
However, if past experience is any guide, it is unlikely that under the current circumstances the Shinners’ wish will be met. It is only when the elements of a possible agreement are seen to exist that Clinton acts. That is why, in 1993, just after he took office, so many of his Irish-American supporters were disappointed when he did not appoint a special envoy. Nor did he grant Gerry Adams a visa in April of that year. This was not because he was disinclined to do either of these things, as was suggested in some circles. Sensibly, he waited until the outline of a possible solution began to emerge, which was not until early the following year, when the possibility of an IRA cease-fire became real. His intervention was timed to make that gel, as it did with the granting of the Adams visa in January 1994.
The use of power must be subtle as well as forceful.
The parties to the dispute will first have to give a sense of the area where the breakthrough might lie before the president could usefully intervene.
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Hopefully, by the time the party leaders arrive in Washington next week where they are to receive the Averell Harriman peace award, the UUP leader, David Trimble, and his nationalist counterparts will have reached agreement on the issues relating to the North-South bodies. If so, the schedule for the implementation of the Good Friday agreement would be back on track. The new momentum might even be enough to break the logjam on that far thornier issue, disarmament. And no doubt on that matter, the president will have some useful suggestions, if asked.