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THE WORLD : THE IRA : Clinton's Entanglement in Ireland Continues Apace--Despite the Bomb

February 18, 1996|Martin Walker | Martin Walker is U.S. bureau chief for Britain's The Guardian and a political commentator for RTE radio in Dublin. The Guardian's printing plant was one casualty of the bomb in London

BOW, N.H. — The day after the Irish Republican Army broke the 17-month cease-fire with a massive bomb in London's Docklands, Nancy Soderberg of the National Security Council organized a conference call from the White House.

She spoke to two dozen leading Irish Americans--congressmen and senators, businessmen and publishers. They were collectively shattered by the news that at least two people were dead and more than 100 injured by the bomb. In effect, she told them to pull themselves together; this was not necessarily the end of the peace process. The White House was not about to cut its links to Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA.

While the Irish and British governments had severed all ministerial contacts with Sinn Fein until a new and permanent cease-fire was affirmed, President Bill Clinton was still prepared to talk to everyone--even those with fresh blood on their hands.

Clinton, so often accused of being fickle, is staunchly committed to what had promised to be a foreign-policy triumph for his presidency--and a vote-winner among the more than 40 million Americans of Irish ancestry. But he is now in the bizarre position of being closer to Sinn Fein than the Dublin government.

The White House is not just the broker of peace, and more than the dominant player. It is, Clinton's aides conceded privately last week, the only party still talking to all sides.

Soderberg is staff director at the NSC, the third-ranking official after W. Anthony Lake, the NSC advisor, and his deputy, Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger. Foreign-policy aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) until she joined the White House, Soderberg has long known most players in the Northern Irish drama--except for Sinn Fein and the IRA. While working for Kennedy, she had, as a matter of personal moral repugnance for terrorism, refused to meet them.

Just an hour before the bomb had exploded, Adams had phoned Lake to warn him of bad news: The cease-fire was about to be broken, after a contentious meeting of the army council of a very frustrated IRA. Convinced that the British government was not prepared to respond to the cease-fire with serious political negotiations, the army council decided to use its traditional weapon: a terrorist bomb aimed at an unarmed civilian target.

The dismayed Irish Americans on the other end of the line could hardly restrain their relief when Soderberg said Clinton would press on with his mission to bring peace to Northern Ireland after 25 years of guerrilla war. They had feared that Clinton would recoil in horror from a policy that had brought him so close to terrorism.

They suspected British Prime Minister John Major had already been on the phone to the Oval Office, to say, "Told you so." They were partly right. Major had called, but was too astute to rub Clinton's nose in the Docklands rubble.

Major wanted to stress that Clinton should not overestimate his political dependence on the Unionists. Certainly, with a razor-thin majority of three seats in Parliament, he wanted the continuing support of the nine Ulster Unionists. But he felt a genuine mission to resolve the Northern Irish crisis, if he could. And Major was most interested to learn if Clinton still believed Adams could be trusted, whether he had been genuinely distraught on the phone.

For both Clinton and Major, the role of Adams inside the IRA's councils was key. For the U.S. president, this would determine whether the cease-fire and peace process could be restarted, and whether Adams could be a reliable interlocutor in the future. But for Major, there was a further issue: Whether Adams' discomfiture meant the long-term British strategy was finally succeeding in provoking a possibly lethal split within the IRA.

The army-council decision to declare a cease-fire in August 1994 passed by the most narrow of margins, 5-4. Broadly, the IRA in the north and the Belfast brigade and IRA prisoners--Adams' power base--wanted the cease-fire. The southern units, influenced by a skeptical Brian Keenan, and the tough rural battalions of South Armagh who looked to a local leader, "Slab" Murphy, were far less certain.

That 5-4 vote in the IRA council hinged on Clinton. According to internal IRA minutes: "There is potentially a very powerful Irish American lobby not in hock to any particular party in Ireland or Britain . . . . Clinton is perhaps the first U.S. president in decades to be substantially influenced by such a lobby."

The IRA was right. Four years ago this week, as the Vietnam draft and the Gennifer Flowers scandal seemed to sink Clinton's hopes in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, he had one piece of good news. His old Yale Law School classmate, Rep. Bruce Morrison, had joined with Boston's Mayor Raymond L. Flynn to found Irish Americans for Clinton. They even sent volunteers to New Hampshire to help. And Kennedy assigned Soderberg to Clinton's foreign-policy team.

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