Selling Northern Ireland on peace Clinton, aides worked behind the scenes since his election

November 29, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Last May, during a thunderstorm so violent it seemed biblical, the adversaries in Northern Ireland's civil war stood under a tent on the South Lawn of the White House and put aside ancient hatreds.

The Irish visitors were attending a presidential conference on trade and investment in Northern Ireland, an effort that would have been unthinkable a year earlier.

President Clinton, the man of the hour, joined the party to choruses of "Hurrah! Hurrah!"

A cease-fire in the 25-year-old civil war opened new possibilities to the people of Northern Ireland, and Irish leaders on all sides credit Mr. Clinton for playing a crucial role in bringing it about.

Moreover, while public attention has focused on Mr. Clinton's diplomacy in places such as Haiti and Bosnia, he and his advisers have worked relentlessly behind the scenes to nudge the parties in Northern Ireland to lay down their weapons and embrace peace instead.

Mr. Clinton's audience included the bitterest enemies: Protestant "Unionists," who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, as well Catholic "nationalists" who dream of a united Ireland.

"The prime minister of Ireland and the prime minister of Great Britain, at no in consider-able risk to themselves, have paved the way to a new era of peace," Mr. Clinton shouted into the driving rain.

"I urge all of you to follow that path."

For guests such as Tony Culley-Foster, a Protestant from Northern Ireland who lives in the United States, it was a breakthrough moment.

"It was exhilarating," he said. "Everybody behaved like they were completely at home with one another."

By now, the world knows the toll "The Troubles" have taken, most of it among the 1.5 million inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

Since 1969, 3,168 men, women and children have been murdered. Another 30,000 have been maimed or wounded.

But in the past 15 months, the wailing of sirens -- and victims -- has vanished. On Aug. 31, 1994, the Irish Republican Army announced a "complete cessation" of violence. Six weeks later, on Oct. 12, the Protestant paramilitaries followed suit.

That cease-fire ended the hated patrols of British armored cars through Belfast's streets, opened the border with the Irish Republic and breathed new life into the commerce and tourism of Northern Ireland.

Indispensable role

Mr. Clinton was quick to give credit to British Prime Minister John Major and others such as former Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds and his successor, John Bruton, for agreeing to work with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

But his own role -- largely behind the scenes -- was indispensable.

The president's public role began by allowing Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams permission to enter the United States, a decision vehemently opposed by the British government, which officially branded Mr. Adams a member of a terrorist organization.

"Four or five times in the last two years President Clinton made the hard decisions that kept things moving," said Dermot Brangan, an official in the Irish Republic's New York consulate.

"Sometimes he went against the wishes of the two governments [Ireland and England]. But he didn't waver."

Mr. Clinton has also met with Protestant political leaders from Ulster, jawboned wealthy Democratic contributors into investing in Northern Ireland, was host for that May conference on trade -- and now is going to Northern Ireland itself, a place no American president has been before.

"It is not too much of a simplification to say that because Bill Clinton won the election in 1992, probably 150 people in Northern Ireland are walking around today who would have been dead by now," said Niall O'Dowd, an Irish expatriate instrumental in the peace process.

"You do the math: 3,000 people in 25 years. The cease-fire has lasted almost 15 months. Maybe it will last an eternity."

President Clinton came to the Irish dilemma with a different mind-set than any of his predecessors.

He represented a generation not old enough to recall the passionate bonds forged in war 50 years ago between America and England.

And he and his political strategists saw Anglo-Irish politics through a different prism. Forty million Americans claim Irish ancestry, however diluted, and many do so with great romanticism.

Smart politics

This is most evident on St. Patrick's Day, but Mr. Clinton's political aides believe there is another day on which Irish ties can be important, namely Election Day.

Asked once about the implications of inviting Mr. Adams to the White House, Clinton political adviser Paul Begala talked politics, not foreign policy: "Our polls show that the group we've lost the most support with are Irish Catholics in the Midwest."

In 1992, Irish-American leaders in New York held a candidates forum soliciting the views of the Democrats running for president. Mr. Clinton was asked whether he'd dispatch a "special envoy" to Northern Ireland, grant a visa to Mr. Adams and expand opportunities for Irish wishing to emigrate.

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