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March 19, 2008

The Long Good Friday: Brendan Simms reassesses the United States' role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society - offers a reassessment of the U.S. role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

It has become known as the longest Good Friday in political history. Ten years ago, on Good Friday 1998 the negotiators in parliament buildings at Stormont finally signed up to a power-sharing agreement. Ian Paisley, the leader of the rejectionist Democratic Unionist Party, looked a forlorn figure that day. Over the following decade, however, his party waxed at the expense of David Trimble. By the spring of last year, however, he too was ready to "jump".

Last year, the St. Andrews Agreement brought together Sinn Fein and the DUP in a power-sharing executive. Not long after, Paisley visited the Irish Republic for a commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne, and was lionised by the media and southern politicians. Nowadays, the sight of the radical Republican Martin McGuinness and Paisley joshing together on television barely raises an eyebrow. So it seems that the troubles would only end once an internal solution had been reached between the two "extremes", which they did at their own pace, and largely oblivious of the world around them. As Winston Churchill famously remarked as European war loomed at the beginning of the last century, nothing could "disturb the integrity" of the quarrel in the "dreary steeples" of Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Not quite. The international dimension has been central throughout the past two decades, just as it had been throughout the conflict. Britain was not just in Northern Ireland "because it was there", but because securing Ireland had historically been fundamental to her security.

From Spanish intervention in Ireland during Elizabethan times, through Louis XIV's sponsorship of James II's last stand in Ireland, to the French expedition in support of the 1798 rebellion, Ireland had always served as the "back door" to England. This remained true throughout the twentieth century, from German arms supplies to the conspirators in 1916 to the Second World War, when a pre-emptive invasion of the newly-independent Irish Free State was contemplated throughout the dark days of 1940 and 1941. During the Cold War, British strategists saw Northern Irish ports as vital to the control of the Atlantic against the Soviet Fleet - they recalled how bitterly the southern "Treaty Ports" returned to Free State sovereignty in 1938 had been missed during the Second World War.

After the outbreak of the "Troubles" in 1969, British strategists fretted that the KGB would exploit the increasing tendency of radical republicanism to frame their struggle within the wider context of the revolutionary struggle against western "imperialism". In the mid-1970s, as the province was racked by escalating civil strife, Whitehall feared that Northern Ireland would become a second Portugal (where a left-wing military coup had recently taken place).

All this changed with the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990. Only then could the British Secretary of State say with confidence that Britain had no (longer!) any "selfish strategic interest" in Northern Ireland. Leaving aside the slight to Ulster Unionists, the statement makes a dubious assumption that the defence of the national interest can ever be "selfish". But there is no doubt about the substance: the province had no indeed become a strategic backwater.

The same is true of US policy. So long as the Cold War raged, Washington was concerned not to offend London over Northern Ireland. Ronald Reagan cherished a genuine sentimental regard for his Irish roots in the Tipperary hamlet of Ballyporeen, but he never jeopardised his close relationship with Margaret Thatcher on that account.

The changed strategic picture of the early 1990s, however, created the space within which the "Irish lobby" could influence US foreign policy. Not only was the common struggle against communism a thing of the past, but Britain and the United States had fallen out spectacularly over ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It was only in this context that President Clinton agreed to ride roughshod over London's objections and grant the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States.

Throughout the 1990s, in fact, the Clinton administration and especially his advisor Nancy Soderberg leant heavily on the nationalist side, and did much to redress the power imbalance between the Nationalist and Unionist camps within the province itself. President Clinton also provided a highly successful chairman in the veteran Democrat Senator George Mitchell, and intervened in person in the negotiations on a number of occasions. The driving force here was probably the President's desire to woo the Irish-American vote, but Bill Clinton was also genuinely drawn to the role of a peacemaker, and there was always the hope that Ulster would serve as a template for the resolution of other knotty problems from Israel-Palestine to Kashmir.

Important as President Clinton's well-known intervention was, the Good Friday Agreement would almost certainly have taken place without it. What is much less well known, is just how decisive the United States has been in driving the "Peace Process" forward since he left office in 2000. It is true that the Republican administration of George W. Bush, who had campaigned on the promise of "a more humble" America, did not at first show much interest in Northern Ireland.

In September 2001, however, this changed radically. First, three senior Irish Republicans were arrested in Colombia on suspicion of training FARC guerrillas. These were notorious in the United States not only for supplying deadly narcotics to the nation's addicts, but also for their visceral hostility to American foreign policy.

Very shortly afterwards, the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York changed everything. By chance, the US presidential envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass was meeting Gerry Adams on the very day the towers came down, and the latter was left in no doubt that the game was up for what he later revealingly dubbed "ethically indefensible terrorism".

As Mary Alice Clancy has shown in her well-researched article "The United States and post-Agreement Northern Ireland, 2001-2006" (Irish Studies in International Affairs, 18 (2007), 155-173), pressure from the two Bush administrations was central to the IRA decision to move towards complete de-commissioning of their arsenal. So close was the relationship between the Americans and the Unionists after September 11 that David Trimble's advisors not merely had sight of one of Haass's speeches before it was given, but even wrote substantial parts of it.

In time, Haass became increasingly convinced of Gerry Adams's centrality to the whole process and his attitude to Trimble cooled. It is perhaps not surprising that such a strongly "realist" figure as Haass should have inclined towards a deal between the two "extremes". His successor Mitchell Reiss, however, was more in the tradition of liberal interventionism and was instrumental in ratchetting up the pressure on Sinn Fein after the notorious Northern Bank robbery and the lynching of Robert McCartney in 2004-2005. This principled stance was of a piece with President Bush's famous "Second Inaugural" speech of January 2005 which made the export of democracy the cornerstone of American grand strategy.

Of course, even now American policy in Northern Ireland has never been just about those "dreary steeples". One of the reasons US diplomats have followed developments there with such interest is their hope that some insights can be applied to Iraq. That in itself is neither surprising nor reprehensible. But one hopes for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland that they are looking for a compromise involving (some of) the extremes, rather than a "deal" which simply carves up the province between them.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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