By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Irish-American political leaders are standing their ground this week in the wake of a spate of hostile editorial comment in top U.S. newspapers aimed primarily at the IRA and Sinn Féin.
The editorials all took the IRA and Sinn Féin to task over decommissioning, while a number of them heaped praise on Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble.
A number of the editorials appeared even before British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson had decided to initiate legislation that would suspend the Belfast Power-Sharing Executive.
And one of them, in the Washington Post, went beyond criticizing the IRA and Sinn Féin by also taking direct aim at the Clinton White House and Irish-American political leaders.
In an editorial entitled "Silence on Ireland," the Post stated: "The fault lies squarely with the Irish Republican Army, which has taken no steps toward handing in its arms. But neither the administration nor the leadership in Congress is willing to denounce the IRA for its intransigence. The silence harms the prospects for a settlement that was once a fine testament to America’s peace-making prowess."
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The editorial added: "The Irish lobby in Congress has never missed a chance to denounce Protestant intransigence. But now a deafening silence comes from Sen. Edward Kennedy; in the House Reps. Benjamin Gilman [R-N.Y.], Peter King [R-N.Y.], and Richard Neal [D-Mass.] complain about ‘artificial deadlines on the arms decommissioning issue.’ "
The editorial went on to castigate the White House for "waffling" on IRA disarmament. "But the IRA’s leaders need to know that their allies in this country will not indulge them if they break up the peace process. The president should publicly insist that the IRA begin disarmament."
A White House official said the Clinton administration had always called for full implementation of the Good Friday accord, which includes decommissioning.
"Of course we would like to see decommissioning happen as soon as possible and we are working to help make that happen," said the official. But private dialogue is where presidential advisors have recorded the most progress, the official added.
"We read the Washington Post like everyone else," said White House spokesman Mike Hammer, "but we don’t conduct our foreign policy based on its editorials."
Neal sees British hand
"This was a well-orchestrated effort on the part of the British government," said Rep. Neal of the round of high-profile editorials. "What we need to do is to continue to nurture the process and keep them in government as the people of Northern Ireland elected their representatives to do."
Reps. Ben Gilman and Peter King struck back at the Post editorial in particular. In a letter to the editor, the two said their views on decommissioning had been seriously distorted. They quoted from an earlier statement from the Ad Hoc Committee of Irish Affairs, which read: "The best chance for ensuring that arms are no longer part of the political dynamics of Northern Ireland is to carry out the original terms of the Good Friday accord, which require power-sharing institutions be in place and operational in order that arms can and ought to be decommissioned."
King and Gilman, in their letter, stated that the accord set out an orderly time frame for the process of reform in Northern Ireland to which all sides agreed and which none should "unilaterally seek to change by creating artificial requirements outside its negotiated terms."
Meanwhile, White House aides said that President Clinton was focused on the latest problems in the peace process and had directed his staff to vigorously pursue any chance of reconciling the conflicting sides.
Last Friday, Clinton urged all the parties in Northern Ireland to "follow the will of the people” and implement the peace agreement.
Before going to a congressional meeting, Clinton said Northern Ireland was approaching "a very pivotal moment" and that he was working behind the scenes to hold it together.
"It is imperative that everybody live up to the requirements of the Good Friday accord," Clinton said. "Everybody who is an actor must follow the will of the people."
Meanwhile, the Americans For a New Irish Agenda lobby group defended both the IRA and Sinn Féin in a statement that was also strongly critical of UUP leader David Trimble.
"The real threat comes from Mr. Trimble and his Ulster Unionists. They seek unilaterally to impose a deadline on the IRA outside the terms of the GFA. . . . Mr. Trimble has let fly the wrecking ball and now threatened to bring down the entire power-sharing edifice that all the parties have striven so hard to build," ANIA said.