Clinton in Ireland Peace process: Can he have a positive impact on the impasse over unification?

November 29, 1995

EXPECT NO MIRACLES from President Clinton's trip to Northern Ireland on Thursday. High expectations based on his apparent successes elsewhere would lead to disappointment. What Winston Churchill in 1922 called "the integrity of their quarrel" is impervious to intervention by an outsider paying fitful attention.

What Mr. Clinton carries in his pack is the importance placed on the American connection by the Irish Catholic side. Along with that is a suspicion by Ulster Protestants loyal to Britain that he wields a "green agenda" at their expense. He has credibility with the Nationalists but still has to earn it from the Unionists.

Mr. Clinton might have had a positive effect on the recent impasse. That has been the refusal of Ulster Unionists to take part in all-party talks with Sinn Fein until the latter's alter ego, the IRA, "decommissions" its arms. The British government, responsible for producing the Unionists at talks, refused to convene them while the IRA balked. The Irish government has been increasingly frustrated. The eve of Mr. Clinton's visit to London at least partially freed the log-jam.

One sign of the difficulties ahead was the anguished referendum in the Irish Republic on amending its constitution to permit divorce after four years of separation. This pitted urban Dublin against the countryside, the Irish-in-Europe against Irish uniqueness, "modern Irelanders" against "holy Irelanders," the political establishment against the Catholic Church. And it was a dead heat. The six-tenths of one percent margin for passage means the reform will occur, barring success of a legal challenge based on improper government expenditure.

The ambivalence of the Irish Republic's people about creating a non-sectarian, pluralist society with rights for minorities -- as urged by the leading Catholic politician of Northern Ireland, John Hume -- need not slow the peace process in Northern Ireland.

It does demonstrate the difficulty the Republic will face next, in amending its constitution's claim to jurisdiction over the North. This must be done to make Dublin an acceptable partner with the North under an agreement. The Irish political establishment knows what it must do, but it would not hurt if President Clinton reiterated it.

When this trip was planned, the talks were expected to be further along by now. The Unionists have a capable new leader in David Trimble. If Mr. Clinton can jump-start the talks while he is turning on the Christmas lights of downtown Belfast, so much the better.

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