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A Catalyst in N. Ireland's Search for Peace

Diplomacy: Clinton gains credit from all sides for devoting time and energy to the painstaking process.

April 09, 1998|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On St. Patrick's Day, President Clinton invited an array of political leaders to a White House reception marking the ultimate Irish holiday. Although the event celebrated Irish heritage, it also had a clear, calculated political purpose. Not by chance, the guest list that night included most key participants in the Northern Ireland peace talks, and Clinton seized the chance to personally press for agreement.

"He spoke without notes, and you could feel the energy and emotion," recalled an Irish diplomat present. "He made a heartfelt plea for [the negotiators] to have the courage, to go the extra mile for peace. The atmosphere was electric."

The occasion--and almost two days of concentrated one-on-one talks at the White House about Northern Ireland that preceded the reception--offers merely one example of the enormous time and energy that the president and his most senior foreign affairs advisors have invested in the latest phase of the search for peace in the British province.

Under an agreed-upon deadline, the talks are to end, in success or failure, by midnight tonight.

Partly because the fate of Northern Ireland is hardly crucial to U.S. global interests, the extent of Clinton's role has gone largely unnoticed. But those involved say he has proved vital to making the current 22-month-old peace effort probably the best chance in a generation for ending the waves of sectarian violence that have poisoned life in Northern Ireland.

Unlike its involvement in the Middle East peace process, the United States has not been actively involved in developing details of possible compromises. Instead, Clinton has pressured the parties to reach an agreement, injecting a sense of urgency to the negotiations. He has held out the prospect of U.S. economic support if they do.

"It's been a bit like herding the crowd toward a finish line without indicating where that finish line was," an administration official said.

Just why the administration has devoted such resources to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that has sputtered on in one form or another for centuries is unclear.

One White House official insisted that the conflict does matter to the U.S., noting that Northern Ireland constitutes a major security distraction for Britain, America's closest Atlantic ally, and that Irish nationalism quickly spills into U.S. domestic politics.

"There are 40 million Americans of Irish descent," the official said. "This is not your normal foreign piece of land."

The personal involvement by Clinton--who traces his own roots in part to Ireland--has catalyzed U.S. efforts across a broad front.

Among them:

* After a bitter internal fight in the administration, Clinton personally approved a controversial visa for Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, to visit the United States--and the White House--in 1994. Although opposed by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher because it put serious strains on U.S.-British relations, the Adams visit is now seen as a major factor in convincing the IRA's most militant members that a political avenue existed for their long-term goal of achieving a united Ireland.

* In another unusual move, Clinton became the first president to engage leaders of Northern Ireland's majority Protestant community in substantive dialogue. Talks with Protestant leaders, who want to maintain the province's political union with Britain and bitterly oppose a united Ireland, began in summer 1994 and intensified the next year, when David Trimble took over as head of the Ulster Unionist Party. These contacts altered the long-standing image in Protestant eyes of the United States being hopelessly biased in favor Irish nationalism and the IRA. "We feel there's been a growing understanding of the unionist position here," said Ann Smith, who heads an Ulster Unionist Party contact bureau established in Washington in 1995.

* Although the independent chairman of the peace talks, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), has no direct link to the administration, both Clinton and senior administration officials have encouraged and supported his work.

Clinton's strong emotional attachment to the issue has been made clear on occasions such as the St. Patrick's reception. Once asked about the single best day of his presidency, he replied that it was in his late autumn visit in 1995 to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, where he was met by large, enthusiastic crowds convinced that he had already played an important role in establishing a cease-fire that temporarily halted violence.

"He was hailed as the peacemaker," said one who witnessed the reception.

A White House official said Clinton came away from the experience believing that he could contribute to peace efforts.

Those who have tracked Clinton's foreign policy record say he first became politically engaged in the issue in the 1992 New York presidential primary when he found himself in a potentially tight race with former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

"A group of Democrats interested in the issue persuaded him to take it on," said Kimberley Cowell, a specialist in Northern Ireland affairs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington-based lobbying group. "He gradually came to see there was room to maneuver, room to do something there."

White House officials say administration support for an Ulster peace agreement would include encouraging private-sector investment in the province. "We can also bring our expertise on civil rights and racial issues," noted one administration official. "We can support the reconciliation effort."

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