Sunday 16 December 2018

US coolness a sign of normal politics

U.S. President Barack Obama checks his watch during the visit with Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny on St. Patrick's Day at the White House (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
U.S. President Barack Obama checks his watch during the visit with Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny on St. Patrick's Day at the White House (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

For once there has been less whinging about the annual exodus of ministers to far-flung cities on St Patrick's Day. This follows years of undeserved scepticism about the value of these overseas trips by ministers. They are costly expeditions but, relative to the commercial visibility and promotion of Ireland and its exports to the wider world, it is money well spent. In a small open economy such as Ireland, which exports 90pc of what we produce, we need every opportunity to showcase our goods and services in a globalised marketplace. The outreach of Enterprise Ireland and the IDA has delivered solid jobs for Ireland, and both agencies are making a remarkable contribution to our national recovery. But officials can only do so much. Political networking and influence is also essential.

My own ministerial experience in this regard was a positive and memorable one. Because of my involvement in Anglo-Irish relations and the peace process, I attended several years of St Patrick's Day festivities in Washington DC, including the Speaker's Breakfast on Capitol Hill and the presentation of shamrock to the then US president, Bill Clinton.

It was at the height of the White House engagement in the peace process, with representatives of all the parties to the multi-party talks in attendance. Looking back at the now treasured photographs, I recall the ominous sense of history being made, aided and supported by the President and the State Department at the highest level. I recalled that intensity of engagement this week, when Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams experienced some coldness in his dealings with the US State Department, which he described as "not helpful".

I imagine there has been a sense of disappointment and impatience in those quarters following the failure to accept the Richard Haass proposals and in the light of the impasse on welfare reform at Stormont, which has plunged the Executive yet again into crisis. After 20 years of deep US involvement in the protracted peace process - going back to the controversial granting of a US visa to Adams in 1994, carefully coordinated to secure the first IRA ceasefire, the contribution of successive US administrations to the cause of peace cannot be underestimated.

It was central, not peripheral. To appoint Senator George J Mitchell as envoy and then chairman of the multi-party talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement was a masterful piece of diplomacy and politics. Former US ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith too played an important role at a time of serious confidence-building with republicans during her term of office. From 1996 to 2001 Jim Steinberg, Clinton's deputy national security advisor, spent long hours listening and talking, navigating the diverse relationships between British and Irish officials, overcoming obstacles, and at times settling State Department nerves.

Senator Edward Kennedy, perhaps the most influential American in the cause of peace in Ireland, was instrumental in securing cross-party support on Capitol Hill and using his influence in the White House over two decades until his death. I recall seeing tears of joy running down his craggy handsome face as he witnessed the eventual establishment of the power-sharing executive comprising Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at a ceremony in Stormont, flanked by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and then British prime minister Tony Blair in 2007.

There had been many false dawns prior to that momentous day. Almost 10 years had elapsed since the great promise of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It had taken so long for republicans to put weapons beyond use that unionist goodwill had been eroded and the executive had only operated fitfully. David Trimble and his party had been overtaken by the DUP to enjoy the spoils of government. Sinn Féin had beaten the SDLP into second place. The peacemakers had been outshone by those with the toughest stance on each extreme.

But, fair or not, it was the longed-for power-sharing government and the guns had been decommissioned. A new police force and justice system was in place and there was, at last, a sense of a new demilitarised beginning for the people of the North. Senator Kennedy had always been a true friend of the Irish Government and was tough when toughness was needed in dealing with Sinn Féin. It was Senator Kennedy who sidelined Sinn Féin and welcomed the McCartney sisters following the murder of their brother Robert by an IRA gang in 2005. His moral compass was steady when it came to dealing with the parties in all their diversity. Like Senator Mitchell, he was fair and even-handed, treating all sides with dignity and acknowledging the dangers of conflict resolution.

If Senator Kennedy was alive today I think he would be dismayed by the experience of Mairia Cahill and Paudie McGahon and unimpressed by the responses of Sinn Féin to claims of cover-up and intimidation. There is a time for confidence building and a time for disapproval. That is the chill wind that the Sinn Féin leadership is feeling from the US administration. Mr Adams may complain that such treatment is "not helpful", a term often employed by republicans over the long period of the peace process when things were not going their way. In the past there was a veiled threat that there would be implications to the peace process. It was a tyranny in a way and at times the two Governments and the US administration had to suspend their critical faculties in the greater cause of sustaining the process. What constituted a breach of the ceasefire? What did decommissioning of the IRA arsenal actually mean? Creative ambiguity became the order of the day.

Those days are over. Politicians and public alike are now less accepting of the equivocation and denials of responsibility by Sinn Féin. We treasure the hard-won peace and dearly hope that the Executive can overcome discord. We, like President Barack Obama "wish them good luck and God speed".

A visa waiver programme for undocumented Irish in the US was of higher priority this year. Mr Adams should not feel slighted by a state department coolness. It is a sign that, thankfully, normal politics - with all its compromises - is the order of the day in the North.

Irish Independent

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