Niall O’Dowd: We need a US envoy to the North more than ever

Posted By: September 03, 2017

Only a fool believes the problems in the North ended with the Belfast Agreement

Niall O’Dowd. Irish Times. Dublin. Saturday, September 2, 2017

In 1985 a delegation of Irish-American leaders visited the US state department in Washington to seek a policy briefing on Northern Ireland.

The desk officer in charge of Ireland explained to us that he had been given charge of Ireland because it was alphabetically close to Iceland, which was a Nato member and his main priority.

We asked him where his information on Ireland came from, and he opened a drawer and produced a sheaf of clippings, all from British newspapers, not an Irish newspaper clip among them.

That was the sum total of his knowledge and interest in Ireland.

Our brief meeting over, we stood outside on the pavement and pondered the massive task ahead.

How would the US ever become responsive and involved in the Irish issue given the derisory attitude we had just experienced?

Yet, less than a decade later, in 1995, I sat in a midtown law office with George Mitchell, the newly appointed special economic envoy to Northern Ireland.

I had expected Mitchell to seek guidance on the alphabet soup of players in Northern Ireland, but I ended up having an education myself as he outlined his vast American political experience as Senate majority leader, cutting deals with friends and foes, and spoke of such derring-do as a template for operating in Ireland.

I left thinking here was the type of pragmatic American approach that could work so well in the North.

Work it did, and Mitchell surpassed all expectations to the point where many believe he should have shared the Nobel Prize awarded to John Hume and David Trimble.

What had occurred in the intervening decade to energise an American president?

In short, it was a concerted effort by Irish Americans across the political spectrum to make Northern Ireland relevant in American foreign policy and an Irish government, led by Albert Reynolds, that valued pragmatism over paralysis.

Spotting Clinton

The new departure had paid off in spades with the election of Bill Clinton. Irish America spotted him early in the race for the Democratic nomination early and got his commitment to a new American approach before his election as president in 1992.

The appointment of Mitchell was one of the several major steps Clinton took, including the granting of a visa to Gerry Adams that transformed the political landscape in Northern Ireland.

Mitchell’s work culminated, of course, in the Belfast Agreement – 20 years old next year – which has overcome every crisis up to now.

But the American involvement does not end there. Other special envoys, Richard Haass in particular, played a huge role on major issues such as decommissioning and policing, as did Mitchell Reiss. Declan Kelly delivered on jobs for Northern Ireland. The most recent envoy, Gary Hart, made numerous visits as the assembly began to run aground.

Now, at another critical moment for the North, that important American commitment as represented by the envoy is in danger of being withdrawn, the victim of a pincer movement between a clueless president who has no concept of soft power and a State Department that secretly seethed over losing control of any aspect of foreign policy.

Problems persist

The need for continued American involvement in Northern Ireland is crystal clear. Only a fool, or a hopelessly out-of-touch State Department apparatchik, believes the problems in the North ended with the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

If the collapse of the executive and the ramifications of Brexit cannot be dealt with, they will combine to form the perfect storm

Laughably, we have the British Secretary for Northern Ireland chairing talks that include a party propping them up in government. It is as if the referee for this year’s football All-Ireland had donned a Mayo shirt.

Clearly, there is still a role for the US in the quest to utterly normalise the North. Trump is exhibiting his zero-zero vision here, as is the State Department. Kicking Northern Ireland to the kerb merely emboldens and makes stronger those who are resisting change and compromise.

Northern Ireland needs an American presence, for political and economic reasons. Letting go of such a commitment sends a clear message of disinterest.

Having gained that influence in such a hard-won way, the Irish Government and Irish America should fight this decision tooth and nail.

• Niall O’Dowd is founder of and Irish Voice newspaper in New York