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Clinton’s Legacy Is US Support For Both NI Traditions

Irish Times


December 9, 2000


LENGTH: 2099 words

HEADLINE: Clinton's legacy is US support for both NI traditions


By Trina Vargo


Next week, during President Clinton's third, and final, official visit to Ireland, he will endeavour to help overcome the current obstacles in the Northern Ireland peace process. As he rolls up his sleeves one last time, and as he receives the thanks he justly deserves, everyone who understands the positive impact he has had can't help but wonder what will become of the peace process without him, and where Northern Ireland will rank on the foreign policy agenda of the next president.

Some might argue that President Clinton has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to a small island, with a small population, and which is of no "strategic" importance to the United States. Disproportionate or not, it worked, and it is perhaps his most significant foreign policy achievement.

His willingness to reject the advice of the British government and most in his own administration, and give Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States in early 1994, put in motion the chain of events that led to the ceasefires and the George Mitchell-negotiated Good Friday agreement. Even those in the British government who initially opposed the visa have since conceded the positive role it played, as well as the positive value of US involvement overall.

One significant factor in President Clinton's initial decision to become involved was the encouragement of such leaders as Senators Edward Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Alfonse D'Amato, and others. They are representative of the 44 million Americans of Irish descent who care deeply about the land of their ancestors. In the US, where foreign policy issues are often met with uninterest by the general public, politicians find they cannot afford to ignore those few foreign policy issues of interest to a sizeable constituency. In some ways, the next president can't walk away from Northern Ireland, even if he wants to.

Irish-Americans who remember the vacuum that characterised US involvement in Northern Ireland in the pre-Bill Clinton era fear that US foreign policy in the years ahead will be reminiscent of the last Bush presidency. But President Clinton fundamentally changed things, and there is no going back. And while there is no question that President Clinton greatly advanced peace in Northern Ireland, there is equally no doubt that he could not have done so if certain conditions had not existed. In 1993, John Hume had been talking to Gerry Adams, British officials were talking to the IRA, and the prime ministers, Albert Reynolds and John Major, had a close working relationship.

When I worked for Senator Kennedy, more than six months in advance of the Joint Declaration by the two governments in December 1993, we were receiving clear signals through Niall O'Dowd and others that the IRA was willing to negotiate to bring an end to the violence. O'Dowd contacted me because he knew it would require Senator Kennedy's involvement if the US was to take advantage of this opportunity. To do so would require bypassing the State Department, which historically had been unwilling to challenge British policy on Northern Ireland. In National Security Adviser Tony Lake and his deputy, Nancy Soderberg - a former colleague in Senator Kennedy's office - we had two people willing to consider a new approach to Northern Ireland.

Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith was prepared to challenge the State Department to support a visa for Adams. Senator Kennedy, who had always opposed violence as a means of producing change in Northern Ireland, became convinced that a visa for Adams could help. All of these factors enabled President Clinton to do what he wanted to do.

Despite the intense US involvement of the last seven years, and perhaps because of it, it is improbable that President Clinton's successor will play the sameconstant hands-on role in Northern Ireland. The likelihood of one, let alone, three presidential visits to the island, is remote. Late-night White House calls to Gerry Adams or David Trimble will be fewer.

There are realities which all of us who care deeply about this issue must accept. A world of other foreign policy problems, such as a worsening situation in the Middle East and a dysfunctional Russia, will face the next president.

And while much of the hard work of the peace process remains, the situations that call for the direct involvement of the American president will hopefully be fewer. A measure of the success of the process will be the extent to which the people of Northern Ireland and the two governments take ownership of it and make unnecessary the day-today involvement of the United States.

The Northern Ireland peace process and President Clinton's name will forever be entwined, and a significant share of its success will historically be attributed to President Clinton and Senator Mitchell, regardless of what the next president does. Although no one would admit it, human nature suggests that the next president will see Northern Ireland as having been "Clinton's issue". He won't see his role as crucial, or his opportunities to make a difference as profound. He will understandably want to find "his own" foreign policy issue - one in which he feels he can uniquely effect change. He won't feel that way about Northern Ireland.

Irish Americans who have long been involved in the issue are somewhat fatigued as well. We are anxious to take the relationship to a new level.

Ireland is now the fastest-growing economy in Europe. Business ties between the United States and Ireland are growing exponentially, and an all-island economy can reap rewards for all. Ireland's high-tech entrepreneurs involved with the US-Ireland Alliance are anxious for these opportunities and for a partnership with America which is just that - not the outdated relationship that cast Ireland as supplicant.

The cultural and educational arenas offer other avenues to expand the relationship. The Taoiseach saw these opportunities when he committed his Government to endow the George J. Mitchell Scholarships, a US-Ireland Alliance project which brings America's future leaders to the island of Ireland for a year of graduate studies.

These probabilities do not mean, however, that those in London and in some sections of the unionist community who never wanted the US involved in the first place have prevailed. Irish America - and more than half of us are Protestant - is concerned about the discrimination that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland has endured. Most are not sympathetic to the IRA, but they want to see Catholics in Northern Ireland enjoy equal rights and opportunities. This attitude is too often wrongly construed as anti-Protestant. We simply want to see Catholics no longer treated as second-class citizens. They should have an equal sense of ownership of the institutions that govern them. We want everyone in Northern Ireland to move forward together. The Irish American community, far from being rabidly partisan, supports compromise, as was indicated by the nearly universal support for the Good Friday agreement. President Clinton's legacy is American support for both traditions and that is what his successor should continue to promote.

Unfortunately, some in the unionist community mistakenly see any advance for nationalists as a step back for themselves. They need not. The principle of consent has been enshrined. Irish republicans and nationalists must accept that there won't be a united Ireland tomorrow. Equally, loyalists and unionists must accept that there some day may be. Irish America becomes outraged when it sees blatant bias on the part of the British government in favour of the unionist community. Whenever that happens, Irish America will demand US involvement, and the next president will find these demands hard to ignore.

Irish America will find that day-to-day presidential involvement in Northern Ireland will cease. We must pick our moments to ask for involvement. But the president should not underestimate the numerous obstacles that remain, the truly positive impact he can have, and the blame he will incur if President Clinton's advances are seen to be lost because of his successor's inaction. He should ensure that less quantitative personal attention does not mean less qualitative personal attention. He should make clear his willingness to become involved when necessary.

With a less hands-on approach from Washington, the role of the US ambassador to Ireland will take on added importance. The president must choose an ambassador who is up to the substantive job that it is, not a "social ambassador" as Republican administrations once treated the position. It must be someone who has the president's ear. The president should also consult with those who know the issue. President Clinton and Senator Mitchell will certainly be willing to offer advice - and he should consider it carefully. He should consult with Democrats like Ted Kennedy and others who have extensive experience with this issue. Throughout his campaign, George W. Bush spoke of his success in working with Democrats in Texas.

The Irish issue is certainly one where working with Democrats is essential, and one on which his commitment to bipartisanship can be quickly gauged.

Previous administrations believed that our "special" relationship with Britain meant that we should defer to them on matters involving Northern Ireland. That was the wrong approach and has been proven to be wrong. The British government was angered when the US gave Gerry Adams a visa. But former secretary of state James Baker was wrong when, at the 1996 Republican convention, he claimed that the Adams visa created "the worst relationship with our closest ally, Britain, since the Boston tea party". This disagreement had no long-term negative impact, as is evident by the close relationship between President Clinton and the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair. It is important that the next administration not revert to the outdated policy of simply acquiescing to the British government and the State Department.

It should also be noted that there is a split in the Republican Party on the Irish issue. Senior advisers like James Baker and others whom a Republican president is likely to turn to for advice were the very people who took a hands-off approach to Northern Ireland in the past. In a recent article in the journal, Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice, probably the next National Security Adviser, wrote about the goals of a George W. Bush foreign policy. Her description of what constitutes "national interest" and "key priorities" would not seem to include Northern Ireland.

At the opposite end of the Republican spectrum are Congressional leaders like Peter King and Ben Gilman, who are sympathetic to Sinn Fein. The positive Northern Ireland language in the Republican platform of last summer was advocated by this latter group, but it was viewed by some as a sop to that wing of the party, not necessarily a true reflection of future intent. But the language was there and Governor Bush did send a letter with an emissary to the leaders of Northern Ireland during the campaign. And we hope that he will recall the positive contribution of President Reagan, whose relationship with the prime minister, Mrs Thatcher, brought about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and that his approach to Northern Ireland will fall somewhere between the two extremes of the party.

The people of Northern Ireland also have a role to play. Deputy First Leader Mr Seamus Mallon, speculating on the relative merits of a Gore or Bush administration, felt that it didn't really make much difference. He feels that the people in Northern Ireland must sort out their own problems. If they work in that direction, they'll find a willing hand from America. If they don't, America will become bored and not want to be bothered. If the Northern Ireland situation takes a negative turn, the new president will hesitate to become mired in an issue to which President Clinton dedicated eight years.

The effectiveness of the next president should not be judged on how often and how personally he is involved in the issue, but whether he is willing to become involved when necessary and can make a positive contribution. And that willingness and that ability may well make a difference - perhaps all the difference - in the months and years ahead.

Trina Vargo is president of the US-Ireland Alliance, an organisation she founded in 1998 after serving for more than a decade as foreign policy adviser to Senator Edward Kennedy


Copyright 2000 The Irish Times