Last week, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern spent five days in Washington and New York putting forth the Irish government’s case that there exists substantial intelligence indicating that members of the Provisional IRA and members of Sinn Fein played roles in the Northern Bank raid last December.
The White House special envoy to the North, Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, said he believed what the minister said regarding alleged IRA and Sinn Fein involvement in the robbery.
“I have no reason to question their conclusion that it was done by the IRA,” Reiss said after the meeting held at the Irish ambassador’s residence in Washington on Wednesday. He also said he has already made his recommendation on how invitations to the White House should be handled. He would not tell reporters what that recommendation was.
“The Northern Bank was in fact a huge knock on the trust and confidence on the government and the taoiseach,” concluded Ahern standing next to Reiss.
“He didn’t pull any punches,” said one Irish official of Ahern’s strongly worded briefings earlier in the day for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Reps. James Walsh and Joseph Crowley.
Pressed whether Sinn Fein would continue to be allowed to fundraise in the U.S. despite Reiss’s acceptance of their alleged involvement in the bank raid, the ambassador said the administration was currently “reviewing” its relationship with all of the North’s political parties.
Ahern’s position countered the one delivered a week ago by Sinn Fein’s North Belfast Assembly member, Gerry Kelly, who told many of the same American government officials that Sinn Fein had nothing to do with the bank robbery.
“We regret we are being punished for what others have done,” said the Ulster Unionist Party representative based in Washington, Anne Smith, who said she had also read press reports indicating her party would not be invited this year.
She said UUP leader David Trimble would still come here for various other March 17 celebrations, including the lunch hosted by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the American Ireland Fund gala.
“St. Patrick’s Day is important, even if it is brief, because it shows the president is still involved,” Smith said.
Irish officials said Ahern explained in all his various meetings during the week that it would be best not to invite any of the North’s political parties rather than just excluding Sinn Fein.
“Of course we’ve always made it clear that the decision is up to President Bush and his team on who receives invitations, but we also explained that excluding one group would allow them [Sinn Fein] to seem like victims,” an Irish official said.
“I did not lobby anyone in the administration or Mitchell on the issue of anyone being guests in the White House — the Irish government hopes to be a guest.”
Meanwhile, there is no question that the traditional offering by the taoiseach of a bowl of Shamrock and a short bilateral visit with Bush will remain on the White House schedule.
“The real victims here were the shareholders in the bank and those people whose deposits were stolen by the robbers themselves and whether a political party portrays itself as a victim is their call,” Reiss said.
Reiss refused to outline any time line as to when the final reception plans will be revealed. “There’s been no decision on the matter,” a White House spokesman said.
The White House reception has long been considered a good neutral meeting ground for the North’s politicians who have assembled at the White House for St. Patrick’s since Bill Clinton was president and who achieved several breakthroughs after their White House meetings in the run up to the acceptance of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.