The impeachment proceedings looming against President Clinton could have unfortunate consequences for many people and places well beyond the confines of the United States. Not least among those places is Ireland.
The president is the first in history to have made the Northern Ireland issue an important part of his administration’s agenda. He broke with a long-standing tradition that ruled that, as far as Irish policy was concerned, the State Department functioned as a kind of branch of the British Embassy in Washington. Britain’s views were its views.
In fact, there was until Clinton no real Irish policy at all. Carter broke the mold to a certain extent in 1977 with his Ulster speech, and Reagan helped nudge things along in 1984 when it looked like the British-Irish negotiations that eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement were about to fail. But no U.S. president until Bill Clinton twisted the tail of the British lion so often. It may well have become something of a toothless old cat, but it could still roar.
He did it simply by creating an independent U.S. policy on Northern Ireland that took into account Irish interests as well as those of Britain. Clinton went beyond the State Department/British Embassy line that Northern Ireland was primarily a security problem and that the most the Yanks should do is to stop IRA sympathizers in America from sending money and weapons to the gunmen and bombers.
For this transformation all Irish Americans who have Ireland’s best interests at heart should be grateful, regardless of their political outlook. Grateful for a president who delivered on his campaign promises to make the North an issue, to look at the visa ban on Gerry Adams, and to appoint a special envoy.
Back in 1992 few believed that these were little more than the usual play for votes that politicians make when running for office and trying to please everybody. Indeed, during Clinton’s first year of office, British journalists in Washington spent a lot of column inches sneering at the fact that he had not immediately done what he said he would do. The granting of a visa for Adams in January 1994 was their wake-up call. It was a historic moment, a sign that the old relationships among Britain, the U.S. and Ireland were changing, and that Ireland would be the beneficiary. That change helped bring peace.
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In the years succeeding, Clinton intervened to make things happen. When Britain threatened to bar Sinn Fein representatives from the December 1994 investment conference in Belfast, he made it clear that his own envoy, the late Ron Brown, would not attend. Britain conceded. When the British fiercely objected to his proposed hand-shake with Adams in March 1995, Clinton judged the gesture would be helpful for the struggling peace process and did it. He granted the Sinn Fein president a fund-raising visa that same month, once more against the wishes of the British Embassy and its allies at the State Department. Each of these gestures may be deemed small in the overall scale of things. But they were crucial in showing that the U.S. trusted the republican movement and took seriously its attempts to permanently end the violence and go down the political path of negotiation. And — perhaps most important of all — it showed the British that America was paying attention to what was going in Northern Ireland.
Clinton’s trip to Belfast in late November 1995 was one of the most memorable events in the whole peace process. After a year of British procrastination and prevaricating, the people of Northern Ireland needed Clinton’s heartfelt enthusiasm and support for their long struggle for peace. And they returned his enthusiasm with one of the warmest welcomes that any foreign politician has ever received in Irish history. Of course, he did not seem foreign at all — that was the point. He was one of them.
As the Good Friday peace agreement is struggling toward implementation and needs all the help it can get, anything that would damage or impair the president’s role would be a severe loss to Ireland. As the Senate considers the rights and wrongs of impeachment, it should take into consideration the president’s outstanding record on the Irish issue. His conduct there is pertinent to any final estimation of his overall worth. One thing is certain: if that conduct were the only thing it had to consider, such a proceeding would never have occurred in the first place.