Managing the Transition: Departing Ambassador Sean O’Huiginn played a vital role in peace process
February 16, 2011
By Jack Holland
There are some sights we thought we never would see. Irish Americans celebrating the conferring of a knighthood on a British diplomat, for one. A warm embrace between the spokeswoman for Sinn Fein in the U.S. and the Irish ambassador to Washington, for another. Yet we have recently seen both, and within a few days of each other. Both occurred at the Park Avenue Offices of Mutual of America, which, under the auspices of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, over the years has hosted many important get-togethers relevant to the Irish peace process.
The last was a celebration to say farewell to Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S., Sean O’Huiginn, who leaves his post this week to become Irish ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany.
Sean O’Huiginn’s embrace of Sinn Fein’s representative, Rita O’Hare, as with the Irish-American party for Sir Thomas Harris, was made possible thanks partly to the work that O’Huiginn himself did during the early days of the Irish peace process, years before he was dispatched to Washington. In that crucial period, the peace process was a fledgling in the nest, one that many assumed would never take wing. In those days, from 1991-97, O’Huigiun became head of the Anglo-Irish Division, working behind the scenes to try to make sure that it could.
“Both republicans and the British expected it to end in tears,” the ambassador recalled last week, during his final days in Washington. “It was a startling idea for republicans to accept the word of the British government, and vice versa.”
The perception within certain circles, both in Northern Ireland and Britain, was that the IRA and Sinn Fein were playing for time, bluffing both the Irish and British governments, and would never commit themselves to the political road. It was during these often tense negotiations that O’Huiginn earned the nickname “The Dark Prince” because of his trenchant manner and refusal to be deterred from the goal that he believed was ultimately reachable — to bring an end to political violence in Ireland. He helped write some of the Irish government’s major statements and documents, including the Downing Street Declaration (1993), and the Joint Framework Document in 1995, which came out in response to the IRA cease-fire of August 1994. He said that one of his guiding rule was “that it was essential never to mislead the IRA” by promising something that could not be delivered. This helped him win the respect of leading members of Sinn Fein — something in itself unthinkable a few years earlier, when republican rhetoric commonly denounced the Irish government (of whatever political persuasion) and its servants as quislings.
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O’Huiginn was already in Washington, where he was posted as ambassador in 1997, when the news came that the long, difficult process had finally produced a settlement in the shape of the Good Friday agreement in April 19998. He remembers the news as one of the highlights of his sojourn as ambassador.
“I shared the euphoria that came with the signing of the agreement,” he said. “It was an extraordinary feeling, the possibility of an end to violence in Ireland.” In the last days before the agreement was clinched, the U.S. administration was an active protagonist, thanks to President Clinton’s deep involvement in the peace process. The president spent hours on the phone, nudging along the main players back in Belfast.
O’Huiginn said he was “at every high-level meeting about Ireland” involving Clinton and he was impressed.
“Clinton brought an extraordinary knowledge to bear on it,” he said.
O’Huiginn is convinced that without Clinton, getting the peace process started, and then finalizing the Good Friday agreement, may not have been possible.
“The U.S. offered a semi-neutral environment. It was the place where the Adams-Mayhew handshake happened,” he said, referring to the meeting in March 1995 between the president of Sinn Fein and Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
“It was important that both sides could accept U.S. interest in the negotiations,” he said. Of course, Clinton’s management played a vital role in that.
O’Huiginn’s term as ambassador spanned the transition to a new administration under President George W. Bush.
“It was a relief that Bush made it clear with the appointment of Richard Haass that the White House was going to remain involved, though the style has changed,” the ambassador said.
Haass is the State Department’s troubleshooter for Northern Ireland issues, and is actively engaged in monitoring developments there.
“Political intervention is not needed now to the same extent,” according to O’Huiginn, “but Bush gives access to the Irish.” He points out that in March, the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had four hours “one-on-one” with the president. “The message is, ‘We’re there if called upon.’ ”
O’Huiginn has also seen another transformation, thanks to the peace process. It is in the relationship between the Irish government and the Irish-American community. He recalls an earlier period, when he served as the Irish consul general in New York from 1980-83.
“That was a time of great confrontation,” he said. “It had been necessary for the Irish government to draw the line between politics and violence. This was a fundamental distinction, not a rejection of Irish-American involvement in the North, but only of involvement in violence.” Since the peace process, O’Huiginn believes that the vast majority of the Irish-American community “has in turn realized that the Irish government was not acting out of any craven relation to Britain but out of principle. It has been an education process on all sides. People have lost the caricatures. It has certainly made my job easier.”
The long-term consequences of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement are harder to predict. But O’Huiginn accepts the proposition that the agreement will “book-end the Anglo-Irish conflict that began early in the last century with the Unionist gunrunning and the Curragh mutiny.”
He said, “I am proud of the fact that I did my best to make sure that the technical system was there and served the political direction that was needed at that time — an exciting time.”
Asked what he will miss most about the U.S., he responded at once: “The extraordinarily positive quality about people in the U.S. They are totally open . . . dealing with them is a joy. It was rare to meet with actual deception. I’ll also miss the extraordinary constituency here with regard to Ireland. I saw it at the unveiling last week of the Famine Memorial in Battery Park. There was an amazing sense of the deep historical relationship and a fund of good will in this country toward Ireland. I won’t experience that anywhere else.”
However, he is looking forward eagerly to his new posting in Germany. It’s exciting “being brought into a more direct involvement in European politics — the stimulus of that.” He recognizes that his first major problem as ambassador to Germany will be Ireland’s vote in October on the Nice treaty for the expansion of the European Community, which it has already rejected once.
“We were dutiful Europeans when we were at the receiving end, but we backed away when a contribution was needed,” he said. “The vote will define for a long time to come the perception of Ireland in Europe.”
If the high point of his time here was easy to pinpoint — the signing of the Good Friday agreement — so was the low point — the visit to Ground Zero.
“Certainly, if people need confirmation that terrorism was unacceptable, Ground Zero was it,” he said.