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Bush Can Make A Positive Impact On Peace Process

Irish Times


November 9, 2004


By Trina Vargo


Four years ago, while waiting to learn if Al Gore or George W. Bush would become president, I wrote for this paper about what would become of the peace process post-Clinton.


It would be impossible to look at the next four years without considering the last four. I predicted that President Clinton's successor would not pay as much attention to Northern Ireland, not, as I argued, that he should.


The shortcoming of the Administration was not that President Bush wasn't as engaged as Clinton, it was that he wasn't engaged at all.


There were legitimate factors that made Mr Bush's involvement less necessary and less possible. The "heavy lifting" for the US is over, and the peace process is mainly in the hands of the two governments and the party leaders. And, after September 11th, the president's attention is understandably focused elsewhere. The hope was that his personal involvement would be qualitative, if not quantitative.


There have been significant setbacks for Northern Ireland, but he has failed to play any meaningful, personal role. The influence of special envoys is limited when the president isn't himself invested in the process. Bush made two trips to the island, but not because of Northern Ireland. He met the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, in Belfast to talk about Iraq, and EU leaders in the west of Ireland.


Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern made every effort at Leeds Castle to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly. The talks ended without agreement due to the DUP's continued unwillingness to share power with Sinn Féin. Those talks were the most important since the Belfast Agreement, but Bush played no role in them. While one cannot be certain if his involvement would have made a difference, he never tried.


As the DUP was the major problem, and as the DUP admires Bush, one assumes that they may have at least listened to what he had to say.


But what would he have said? The inclination is to presume that if he had weighed in, he would have sided with the two Governments, recognising the apparent historic offer by the IRA.


But one wonders if his complete lack of involvement might have been due, in some part, to a sympathetic view of the DUP that political handlers would have advised him against articulating.


Remember that Karl Rove, the president's right hand, recently compared al-Qaeda to the IRA in a way that baffled even David Trimble. Ron Suskind's recent profile of Bush in the New York Times referred to the division within the Republican Party as "a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion".


He also quoted Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican adviser: "I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do . . .


"This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about al-Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision." It's hard to read that and not think of Northern Ireland and the DUP. Northern Ireland is a place where President Bush might recognise that the world is not always black and white. While there is no defence for the violence of the paramilitaries, it is impossible intelligently to argue that there is no difference between the IRA and al-Qaeda. While the IRA still must take its final steps (and the sooner the better), one can't ignore how far the situation has progressed since before the 1994 ceasefires, since before the paramilitaries were brought into the process. President Bush needs to understand and accept this if he is going to make a positive contribution to the process.


My unsolicited advice to President Bush is:


1. - Recognise Ireland's unique position to serve as a bridge with Europe and the world. The Irish Government has played it both ways with regards to Iraq - saying it opposes the war while allowing US military planes to refuel in Shannon. The Taoiseach may not be fully in the coalition of the willing but neither has he actively opposed you. If you indicate a willingness to engage constructively with Europe, Bertie Ahern could help you mend fences.


2. - Be prepared to be personally involved in Northern Ireland. You don't have to be involved constantly, but you do at critical moments. Make clear to the DUP that sharing power with Sinn Féin is the only way forward. Since the DUP is most likely to hear you out, orchestrate a division of labour with Congressional Democrats whereby you press the DUP and they press Sinn Féin to deliver on what we believe to be on offer.


3. - Suspend the pending deportee cases and direct the Justice Department to sort this. Despite your party's 2000 platform to review the deportation cases, they have continued apace and you've shown no interest in this. In light of the Good Friday agreement, an individual who was a prisoner in Northern Ireland should not automatically be precluded from entering the US. Take a page from Clinton and immediately suspend pending cases.


This is not to say that all such individuals should simply be allowed in - but neither should they be automatically excluded. Your own agenda would benefit as resources are better spent on those who pose a real threat to the US.


4. - Raise the Finucane case with Blair. The recent announcement of an inquiry appears to fall far short of what is required. Raise with Blair the need for an immediate, independent, and public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane.


5. - Be willing to work with members of the Senate who may seek to amend the US-UK Extradition Treaty you sent to the Senate. Many legal experts have raised concerns about this new treaty and the implications of changing the review process intended to guarantee due process.


6. - Help the J1 visa program. The number of young Irish coming to the US for summer work has decreased dramatically. This historic rite of passage for so many has been good for US-Ireland understanding. It's unclear exactly why they're not applying for the J1. Some believe it is because of the hassles involved in obtaining a visa in a post 9-11 world. It may also be related to the exchange rate, and good jobs at home and in Europe. Find out why they're not applying and consider ways you can help reverse the downward trend.


President Bush said after his re-election, "a new term is a new opportunity". This new term provides him with an opportunity to make an impact on the peace process and to reach out to Irish Americans, Ireland, Europe and the world. I hope he'll take it.


Trina Vargo is the president and founder of the US-Ireland Alliance. She is a former aide to Senator Ted Kennedy.



© The Irish Times