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.
Kennedy then set to work on Clinton. It wasn't a walkover, but the president was favorably predisposed. Clinton felt guilty because he already had reneged on hasty campaign promises made in the 1992 New York presidential primary to appoint a "special envoy" to Northern Ireland and to grant a visa to Gerry Adams. Now Ted was asking to redeem more than Clinton's campaign promises. He and John Hume wanted the United States to join the Irish government's appeasement of Gerry Adams and the IRA, disregarding the wishes of its ally, Great Britain.
This didn't bother Clinton because he and some of his senior advisers relished the chance to step on the British lion's tail as a payback for the Conservative Party's ill-advised assistance to the Bush re-election campaign. In convincing Clinton to grant Adams's visa, Kennedy and Hume had two aces in the hole. One was the Clintons' faltering health care proposal. To support his request for a 48-hour visa for Adams, Kennedy recruited key Senate Democrats, including Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. All told, Kennedy managed to get 40 members of Congress to sign a letter urging Clinton to grant Adams the visa. If Clinton acquiesced in the visa for Adams, he would have a call on them when crunch time came for health care. The second ace in the hole was a senior member of the National Security Council, Nancy Soderberg, who had been Kennedy's chief foreign policy aide and a foreign policy adviser in the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Clinton. Soderberg knew John Hume, admired him and his nonviolent policies, and opposed the IRA's physical force nationalism. But the Hume-Adams pact and Kennedy persuaded her to reconsider her opposition to the IRA, and she in turn was very influential in persuading Clinton and her boss, NSC chief Anthony Lake.
When Adams's visa was granted, the White House did not pretend that vital American interests were involved. A February 10, 1994, story in The New York Times quoted American officials to the effect that Clinton had decided to grant the visa "mainly for domestic political reasons," citing the influence of the Irish-American delegation in Congress. Soderberg herself was aware of the risk the administration was running. In the same story the Times quoted "one staff member of the National Security Council"–undoubtedly Soderberg–as saying: "In the end, it might do some good. I must admit that my heart is in my throat when I think about how it could all go wrong." It might do some good? Not a very sophisticated rationale for a foreign policy–and this from its architect. The next time, Nancy should keep her heart where it belongs and rely on her principles and values rather than the lilting blandishments of a provincial politician like John Hume. Appeasement of political violence in a democracy is wrong. Nancy Soderberg once knew that.
To Bill and Ted's disappointment, the February 1994 visa didn't produce an IRA cease-fire. That took until the end of August 1994, after Clinton gave a visa to 74-year-old Joe Cahill, who had been convicted in Dublin in 1973 of attempting to import arms and explosives from Libya. Like Adams, he had served on the IRA's ruling military council. What did the British and the Ulster Protestants think of all this? Not much. But then, they were never asked. As one anonymous White House official said, "It obviously ticks off the Brits, but equally obvious, that is acceptable to a lot of us."
The Unionist paramilitary cease-fire was announced in October 1994. After that, it was all downhill, culminating in Adams's third visa in early 1995, which explicitly permitted him to raise funds for Sinn Fein. As before, the British and the Ulster Protestants weren't consulted. During the rest of the year, to the IRA's disappointment, the United States failed in its attempts to persuade the British to pressure the Ulster Protestants into peace talks. The Protestants had little reason to be enthusiastic, since the IRA refused to declare its cease-fire permanent and refused to consider a token "decommissioning" of its weapons before all-party talks in Northern Ireland.
Nevertheless, the cease-fire held just long enough for Clinton to make his December 1995 trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, becoming the first sitting American president to visit both. While there, Clinton showed superficial signs of sensitivity to Ulster Protestants: his visit to Violet's Fruit Store in Belfast, next door to where 10 people had died in an IRA bombing in October 1993; his purchase there of six oranges and two green apples; and his reference in a speech to the land of the "harp and the fiddle, the fife and lambeg drum," an evenhanded tribute to both wings of Northern Ireland's musical movement. But for militant Protestant Orangemen, who have been in Ireland longer than we have been in America, it will take more than six oranges to erase the image of Gerry Adams scarfing Dublin Bay prawns and Irish whiskey truffles with Bill and Ted at the White House.
In one Northern Ireland speech, Clinton dismissed the IRA and the Unionist paramilitaries, telling them, "You are the past; your day is over." He was premature. A month later, in January, IRA killings resumed at a pace of one a week. They shot Francis Collins in his fish and chips shop. They murdered Martin McCrory through his living room window as he watched television. They shotgunned Ian Lyons as he sat in his car with his girlfriend, Sheena McAlinden. The IRA initially denied the killings, but as one West Belfast Catholic politician said, "I think the very dogs in the street know it's the IRA that are doing this."
Bill and Ted helped hasten the cease-fire's end by mishandling the weapons issue, misunderstanding the British and the Ulster Unionists, and promising more to the IRA than they could deliver. After the initial cease-fire from both sides in late 1994, the Irish government, the British government, and the Unionists made clear that all-party talks must be preceded by a permanent cease-fire–an unequivocal repudiation of violence–and at least token gestures from both the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries toward decommissioning their weapons. The IRA stonewalled on both issues, and the Irish government caved in to the IRA's hard line. So did Bill and Ted. The Unionists didn't.
They refused to come to the table with an IRA gun at their back.
British Prime Minister John Major then came up with a new approach in late January. He acknowledged the IRA's intransigence and agreed to the all-party talks without a permanent cease-fire and without decommissioning of weapons, but only on the condition that the all-party talks take place after special elections to choose delegates to the all-party talks. It was a good idea because it persuaded the Unionists to agree to what they previously had rejected: all-party talks before a permanent cease-fire and before decommissioning.
The Unionists relished the opportunity to contrast their political base with the IRA's in a free election. The IRA and Gerry Adams accused the British of stalling, but that wasn't the point. Elections were. The IRA had earned its place for Adams at the table through terrorism. Now, that place would have to be earned through freely cast votes. Accepting Major's proposal was an act of courage on the part of David Trimble, the Unionist leader. By abandoning his position on decommissioning, he risked a resumption of Unionist violence and renewed political strength for the ultra-militant Rev. Ian Paisley. Unfortunately, Trimble's courageous gesture was not met with a comparable response from the White House, where the only profiles in courage are located in Bill's copy of Jack Kennedy's book on the subject.
Refusing to acknowledge the Unionists' concession and Major's breakthrough in getting them to buy it, the White House took a neutral stance. Privately, Bill apparently encouraged his pal, Ted, joined by Sen. Christopher Dodd, to give the IRA a different–and dangerous–message. "There cannot be an added precondition," said Kennedy, rejecting the idea of special elections. Dodd went further, saying "it is the British who have to be nudged to give us a specific plan quickly"–about as explicit an invitation to violence as you can imagine from a sitting member of Congress.
The IRA was listening carefully, and exactly seven days later it delivered the "nudge" Christopher Dodd's careless words had invited: the 1,000-pound bomb in Canary Wharf. Bill and Ted still don't get it. New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman expressed well the vision Clinton has for Northern Ireland: "There is no room for a territorial solution here. The Northern Irish are doomed to live together. That is why the only solution is some variation of the London-Dublin Framework Document, worked out in February, under which Catholics would have to settle for blurry links to the Irish Republic and Protestants blurry links to Britain, and they would both have to accept a blurry power-sharing arrangement, in which neither side would have the upper hand." Have to accept? Have to settle?
It makes you want to pick Clinton up by the shoulders, shake him, and shout: "It's the bloody Protestants, stupid! You can't ignore them!" The key to peace in Northern Ireland lies with persuading the majority. Noting how the Catholic Church dominates Ireland's politics and culture, the Protestants are understandably wary of "links" to the republic, blurry or not. They know they don't have to accept or settle for anything unless they are persuaded to do so. And certainly not at the point of a gun, because many of them have guns, too. Sadly, all God's children have guns in Northern Ireland.
There are a few positive signs, however. After some initial posturing and finger-pointing, the Irish and British governments got down to business and, without the meddlesome Americans, quickly agreed in March to Major's proposal for special elections to choose delegates to the all-party talks. They scheduled the elections for May 30, with the talks beginning on June 10. Sinn Fein was permitted to take part in the special elections but denied a role in the all-party talks unless the IRA resumes its cease-fire. Sinn Fein has also come under criticism in the South. After the May 30 elections, the Sunday Independent in Dublin called on the Irish and British governments to "end the appeasement of the Republican movement," warning that to do otherwise "would be a betrayal of democracy on this island…that could set the stage for civil war." Another encouraging development is that the Unionist paramilitaries have maintained their cease-fire despite the resumed violence from the IRA.
John Hume, whose initiative with Adams was another casualty of the Canary Wharf bomb, no longer has the kind of influence over the Irish government's policy toward Northern Ireland that he once did. On the other hand, the reputation and influence of the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, is on the rise. He has forged a temporary unity among the two major Unionist parties. His agreement to all-party talks before decommissioning is evidence of his political strength, and it is only from strength that compromises can be made. Moreover, unlike his predecessors, he is every bit as articulate as Gerry Adams in justifying his side's positions. It's still not clear whether he has the stature and generosity of spirit to move beyond his militant Orange background to a new Northern Ireland where Catholics have power in proportion to their electoral strength. As always in this troubled land, the negative signs are still there as well. The May 30 special election provided a number of them. Sinn Fein gathered 15 percent of the vote, a record high for the IRA's political wing. And it did so at the expense of Hume's SDLP. What went unnoticed in the United States however, was that Sinn Fein's Protestant physical force counterparts–the political wings of the Protestant paramilitaries, the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association–polled 6 percent of the vote. That means 21 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland supported the political terrorists on one side or the other. Add to that an increased vote for the militant Rev. Ian Paisley–at the expense of David Trimble–and you have a volatile mixture. Forty percent of the voters now back the extremists on both sides.
The IRA still holds the match, and Gerry Adams has made no public appeal that they put it down. Indeed, in the run-up to the special election, the IRA carried out a "dummy run" bomb attack on a security base in Belfast as if to reinforce the message on a defaced Sinn Fein campaign poster where "Vote Sinn Fein for Peace" had been altered to read "Vote Sinn Fein–or else." Adams used the election results to again demand a seat at the all-party talks without a new IRA cease-fire, a position supported by the Unionist paramilitaries who want to keep their own violent options open. In response, SDLP M.P. Joe Herndon, who knocked Adams out of his seat in the British Parliament in 1992, unexpectedly denounced Sinn Fein as "fascist" and "sectarian." Meanwhile, Clinton maintained his silence.
The best thing the United States can do is to follow the policy enunciated by Ronald Reagan when he addressed the Irish Parliament in 1984. He offered America's "good will and support to Ireland" before adding that the United States "must not and will not interfere in Irish matters." Good advice from a man with far deeper Irish ancestry than the tenuous links recently discovered by Bill Clinton and Al Gore. The United States has no strategic national interest at stake in Northern Ireland. It never did. And it should strictly stay out of any matters involving Northern Ireland unless and until both the Irish and British governments seek U.S. participation. In the meantime, the U.S. government should close any back channel it may still have with Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein, and the IRA. If the political wing of the IRA wants its voice heard, let it come through Dublin and Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, not Washington, D.C., and Nancy Soderberg.
There is something else the Clinton administration can do: It can admit its mistake. A window of opportunity exists for it to do so. While all-party talks formally started on June 10, serious discussions weren't expected until later in the summer. Neither was a new IRA cease-fire. The administration ought to tell the Irish and the British that, at a time and place of their choosing, the U.S. government will formally announce that its policy of the past two years was based on a mistaken trust in the good faith of the IRA. Henceforth, the United States will support the British and Irish governments in setting stringent conditions for allowing Sinn Fein to participate in the all-party talks, including a) Sinn Fein's unequivocal renunciation of violence for political ends; b) a declaration by the IRA's ruling army council that any new cease-fire is permanent; and c) an agreement by the IRA, along with the Protestant paramilitaries, to give up 10 percent of their weapons before participating in decommissioning talks, to be conducted at the same time as the talks on political issues.
If the United States does that with the full backing of both the Irish and British governments, it may well be enough to persuade the Ulster Protestants to take the real risks that making peace will entail. If the Clinton administration can't bring itself to do this–and, in an election year, it probably cannot admit having made a mistake of this magnitude–then it ought to do the next best thing: nothing.
Contributing Editor Michael McMenamin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer in Cleveland. He was assisted with research for this article by Aaron O'Brien, a student at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.