Bill & Ted's Irish Misadventure

The Clinton administration's meddling has put Ireland on the road to becoming another Bosnia. But it's not too late to change.

Bill Clinton's attempt to make peace in Northern Ireland blew up in his face on February 9, when the Irish Republican Army ended its 17-month cease-fire with a 1,000- pound bomb in the Canary Wharf area of London, injuring 43 and killing two. The main component of Clinton's initiative, inspired by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and commenced in 1994, was appeasement of the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein. By most accounts, Clinton and Kennedy were surprised and embarrassed by the IRA's betrayal. They should be embarrassed, but not surprised.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton talked tough about anti-terrorist measures and the need for right-wing talk show hosts to tame their rhetoric. He has not applied a similar standard to the IRA or the head of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams. Unlike Adams, the talk show hosts have all explicitly renounced violence and those who perpetrate it. Since the IRA did its own imitation of Oklahoma City in London, Bill and Ted have maintained an appropriate, if uncharacteristic, silence on matters Irish.

Bill and Ted had their fun. Bill got a trip to Ireland, and both pretended for a time they were peacemakers. But now the fun is over, the body count is higher, and the fatal flaws in Clinton's Irish initiative remain for all to see. If it is not repudiated, either by Clinton himself or by a new American administration, it may forever stand as a milepost on the road to an Irish Bosnia, complete with ethnic cleansing in both Protestant and Catholic areas of Northern Ireland by the private armies of the IRA/Sinn Fein on the one hand and the equally violent Protestant/Unionist paramilitaries on the other. That is one of the more likely scenarios facing both Irelands today, especially if a) the Labor Party's Tony Blair becomes Britain's next prime minister; b) the IRA wins U.S. forgiveness by reinstating a temporary cease-fire and Clinton continues his appeasement of the IRA; c) the United States resumes, with Tony Blair's encouragement, its pressure on Britain to bring the "unreasonable" Ulster Protestants into line; and d) the Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland terminate their own cease-fire and resume hostilities after seeing how successful violence can be against democratic governments who believe in the appeasement of political terrorism.

Clinton's policy in Northern Ireland--formulated in response to the 1993 bargain between Adams and John Hume, head of the largest Catholic party in Northern Ireland--is based on two dubious propositions. The first is that the "peace process" initiated by the Hume-Adams pact will lead to some form of Irish "unity," short of a 32-county republic, sufficient to persuade the IRA to decommission its weapons. The second is that the British will coerce the Ulster Protestants to accept whatever "unity" the IRA agrees to swallow and will actually stick around to suppress the inevitable violence from the Protestant/Unionist paramilitaries that will follow.

The first proposition is hopelessly naive and betrays a shocking ignorance of the origins and history of the IRA, whose bedfellows and allies in its near century-long trail of blood have included Imperial Germany, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, East Germany, the Soviet Union, Castro's Cuba, Basque terrorists, the PLO, and Gadhafi's Libya. The second proposition is equally naive and even more dangerous. Forget for a moment, as most people have, the implacable hostility of the Protestant paramilitaries, which killed nearly twice as many Catholics in 1992 as the IRA did Protestants. Consider, instead, that the second proposition assumes the British will do the right thing and not unilaterally leave Northern Ireland, something they have been trying to do, without success, since 1921. Trusting the British to do the right thing about Ireland--talk about the triumph of hope over experience. The British have, after all, been known simply to leave unpleasant situations, followed by sectarian violence and civil war on a large scale. Think India (and Pakistan) in 1947 and Palestine (and Israel) in 1948. On both occasions, Britain was led by a Labor government, as it likely will be again in the near future.

The IRA knows this about the British and, since the early 1970s, its political and military policies --which it continues to follow--have been designed to bring about just such a hasty departure and bloody outcome. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein are key participants in this overall strategy. Any American government that doesn't recognize this doesn't know Ireland, doesn't know the IRA, doesn't know the Ulster Protestants, and is helping to bring an Irish Bosnia closer. The comparison with Bosnia is not far-fetched. Irish politicians, North and South, including John Hume, former Prime Minister Jack Lynch, and former Irish and U.N. diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien, have all forecast a bloodbath should the British pull out of Northern Ireland on short notice. The number of Catholic refugees who would flee from the North to the South has been projected at 250,000, more than 40 percent of Northern Ireland's Catholic population. To put that in perspective, consider that Ireland's total population is only about 3.5 million, compared to roughly 1.5 million--900,000 Protestants and 600,000 Catholics--in the North. Consider also that support for IRA/Sinn Fein in regular elections is only 2 percent in the South and 10 percent in the North.

The United States does not have any vital interests at stake in Northern Ireland. But having meddled in Irish affairs for the past two years and made the situation worse, the U.S. government has a moral obligation to understand what went wrong and, perhaps, try to make amends. Exploring the origins, premises, goals, and likely consequences of the Clinton-Kennedy initiative may enable either Clinton or a new administration to fashion a policy toward Ireland that will contribute to a genuine peace, not the Orwellian one advocated by Gerry Adams, the IRA, and Sinn Fein, for whom the only acceptable peaceful result is an unlikely Protestant capitulation. The Clinton-Kennedy folly notwithstanding, the United States can play a useful role in the all-party talks that began in Northern Ireland on June 10--if invited by all sides. Appropriate U.S. participation could be a way of making up for the damage caused by the Clinton administration's misguided interference. But the U.S. government won't have credibility with all sides to the talks unless it publicly admits it was wrong to appease those who refuse to permanently renounce violence as a means to an end in a democratic society.

A review of the Clinton administration's failure also teaches valuable lessons about how not to conduct foreign policy in the post�Cold War era. It is bad foreign policy for the United States to unilaterally intervene as a broker in the domestic politics of friendly democratic nations operating under the rule of law. It is worse foreign policy to unilaterally intervene on behalf of (or in a manner that tilts toward) an extremist political faction with a long history of encouraging and condoning violence to achieve political goals. It is still worse foreign policy to engage in such a unilateral initiative for what are essentially domestic political reasons. Finally, it is both naive and dangerous to pursue such a unilateral foreign policy initiative when that initiative has no realistic chance of achieving its stated goals. Bill and Ted's Irish Misadventure broke all four rules. It was nothing more than domestic politics masquerading as foreign policy.

Irish-American support for Irish Republican violence against the British government and Ulster Protestants is a time-honored tradition. A considerable number of Irish Americans have been ready to contribute funds to "keep the struggle alive" against what they perceive to be the British "occupation" of all or part of the country, starting with the creation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the United States in the 1850s, through the 1916�1920 guerilla war with the British that resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, to the 26 years of sectarian violence by the IRA in Northern Ireland beginning in 1970. Most Irish Americans, myself included, consider the pre-1921 struggle for independence morally justified, while only a relatively small minority have endorsed the IRA's subsequent violence. The IRA and its supporters are known in Ireland as "physical force nationalists."

The seeds for the current conflict were sown by the 1921 treaty with Britain that created the Irish Free State and left the six predominantly Protestant counties of the Ulster province in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom--mostly because the Ulster Protestants used physical force themselves to make it clear they would never voluntarily submit to Catholic rule. The Ulster Protestants continued oppressing Catholics, politically and economically, without incident, until the summer of 1968, when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement--non-sectarian but mainly Catholic--staged massive, nonviolent demonstrations to protest the government's political and economic discrimination against the Catholic minority.

Protestant mobs responded with violence; Catholic neighborhoods were overrun; many Catholics died; the government of Northern Ireland stood by; the largely dormant IRA did nothing; and in August 1969, the British (most Irish Americans have collective amnesia on this) sent in their troops to protect the Catholic minority from the Protestant mobs, much as Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to protect African Americans from white mobs. This was the first time British troops had been anywhere in Ireland, North or South, since 1922 (save for World War II, when U.S. and British soldiers trained in Northern Ireland and served as targets for the IRA's terrorism). Hiding safely behind the weapons of the British Army, the IRA was revitalized and, with substantial support from Irish Americans, started raising money for arms to attack the British troops in Northern Ireland who had saved the Catholics from the Protestant mobs when they could not.

This may not seem logical, but then little about the IRA does. By most accounts, Gerry Adams, the current president of Sinn Fein, is an engaging, articulate, charming and thoroughly cunning Northern Irish politician who once served (and may still secretly sit) on the IRA's ruling military council. He is, by many accounts, a cold-blooded killer and, at a minimum, a believer in the threat of violence, if not violence itself, as an acceptable, even preferred, method of achieving political goals. John Hume, by contrast, professes to abhor violence. Hume's influence on the Irish government's policies toward Northern Ireland has been immense. As Conor Cruise O'Brien's biographer wrote in 1994: "Hume acquired in the 1970s a license granted him willingly by all the major political parties in the Republic: the franchise to speak for Northern Ireland's Catholics. If John Hume does not approve of something, no southern government will touch it. And, equally important, the provisional IRA have granted him recognition as the constitutionally-elected leader in the Catholic community with whom they will speak with any degree of seriousness. Thus, he has been able to serve as the sole conduit between the Northern Catholics and southern politicians, and as the primary conduit to both London and Dublin governments on what the [IRA] might be willing to accept in any peace negotiations." While Hume cultivates a nonviolent image, he is in fact bitterly anti-Protestant. O'Brien, who became a distinguished journalist and historian and who participated in Irish politics for many years after his diplomatic career ended, observes that Hume's "actual attitude to Ulster Protestants is the implacable and relentless hostility of the seventeenth century."

Hume's approach, since becoming leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party in 1979, has been to isolate the Ulster Protestants by going over their heads to London and convincing the British to coerce them into some form of a united Ireland. The culmination of that approach was the Hume-Adams initiative in April 1993, when he and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement, the essence of which was the right of "the Irish people as a whole...to national self-determination"--not the right of "the people of Northern Ireland as a whole," a majority of whom are quite content as they are. As O'Brien wrote at the time, it was a pact with the devil--physical force nationalism: "In terms of political influence, the men of violence--in this case specifically the Provisional IRA--have actually moved in from the margins to dominate the centre. Gerry Adams, with the full approval of the IRA leadership, has taken his place at John Hume's side as joint leader of a pan-nationalist and pan-Catholic consensus on Northern Ireland: a consensus that now drags the republic in its wake."

Hume-Adams was endorsed by the Irish government and served as the basis for the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, in which the British renounced any "selfish interest" in Northern Ireland. The declaration was designed to lead to an IRA cease-fire, but O'Brien presciently predicted in October 1993 how it would all end: "[I]t will be a conditional cease-fire and will hold only as long as the IRA believes progress is being made towards the acceptance by Britain of the right asserted in the joint declaration--the right of the Irish people to national self-determination. That means that Britain must be seen to be abandoning the unionists, at least by stages, or the cease-fire will break down." At the time, Hume undoubtedly expected the British to be more forthcoming in pushing the Unionists (so called because they favor remaining part of the U.K.) than they were. By early 1994, however, it was the IRA's leaders who were uncooperative. They didn't trust the British. They couldn't agree to a cease-fire. They needed more reassurance than simply appeasement from Ireland and Great Britain. They needed to be reassured with one of the oldest Irish myths: America as savior. So, having co-opted the foreign policy of the Irish Republic, Hume set out to do the same with the United States. He would show the IRA that he could get the Americans to push the British, who in turn would push the Unionists.

Hume had long since co-opted most of the leaders of the Irish-American lobby in Congress, but Ted Kennedy was their de facto leader. So in December 1993 Hume had dinner in Dublin with Kennedy, who was visiting his sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, the U.S. ambassador in Ireland, to solicit the senator's help in getting a visa for Gerry Adams. Kennedy was persuaded that the Hume-Adams pact made sense, and he agreed to push for the visa.

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