TCS Daily

It's the Guns, Stupid

By Rory Miller - December 1, 2004 12:00 AM

After the optimism of the 1990s and the disillusionment of the last few years it appears that, though taking far more time than UK Prime Minister Tony Blair anticipated, the parties to Northern Ireland's stalled peace process are finally inching towards a substantive agreement. However, the core issue remains, as it always has been, whether local leaders are prepared to engage in politics by solely peaceful means. This demands from world leaders an unambiguous rejection of terrorist methods and a belief that democracy is a robust enough plant to flower in any place where people are free from intimidation. Enter President Bush.

During his failed presidential campaign, John Kerry, the junior senator from the Irish-American stronghold of Massachusetts, condemned President Bush for what he termed the "absence of presidential involvement in efforts to further the peace process"; and he promised that he would "put the Northern Ireland peace process high on America's foreign policy agenda".

The President ignored such criticism and refrained from making equally grand promises about dealing with Northern Ireland in any second term. Indeed, the only reference the President made to the troubled province during the whole election campaign was his expression of support for the deportation of IRA members living illegally in the US; this was something the Clinton administration had refused to do. Among senior Republicans, only Karl Rove addressed the issue, and then only indirectly, when he observed during the Republican National Convention that the War on Terror was "going to be more like the conflict in Northern Ireland, where the Brits fought terrorism, and there's no sort of peace accord with al-Qaeda saying 'we surrender.'"

Given this, one may be excused for thinking that the Bush administration has been, and continues to be, derelict in its duty to the fraught Northern Ireland peace process. This is incorrect. It is true that, in his first term, Bush did not win the public adoration in Ireland and international plaudits enjoyed by President Clinton. Clinton won his status in Ireland by facilitating the move towards the paramilitary ceasefire agreements of the fall of 1994, and being a sponsor of the negotiations that led to the comprehensive Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. Bush himself recognized the achievement, during his first presidential race in 2000 he acknowledged that Clinton "did a good job in Northern Ireland about using the prestige of America to encourage the peace process forward"

However, the context of Clinton's success should not be forgotten. He got involved in the North at a time of unprecedented US international stature (following its victory in the Cold War) and in a period of widespread and infectious optimism in the Middle East, South Africa and Northern Ireland over moves towards peace. Moreover, the prospect of peace was new, and simply talking about it seemed substantial. As with so much of Clinton's presidency, his triumphs in Northern Ireland (like his Irishness) were as much perceived as real.

Moreover, for all their significance the "historic" breakthroughs, handshakes and declarations of ceasefires that Clinton oversaw were largely symbolic. As David Trimble, the former Northern Ireland First Minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party noted: "One has to draw a distinction between appearance and reality. When it came actually to aiding the political process, the record [under Clinton] was not so clear".

What remained to be done, after Clinton left office, was far more difficult: the honoring of a commitment by the parties to the conflict to turn the confidence building measures into a real peace. Even Clinton expressed his frustration at the failure of Northern Ireland's political parties to embrace this opportunity, telling a Canadian audience in 1999:

"I've spent an enormous amount of time trying to help the people in the land of my forebears, in Northern Ireland, get over 600 [sic] years of religious fights. And every time they make an agreement to do it, they're like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time. When they get to the swinging door, they turn right around and go back in again and say, 'I just can't quite get there.' It's hard to give up these things."

The province, during Bush's first presidency and today, has reverted to 'normal', quotidian, cynical, politics. The international spotlight has moved on and further progress will come from within, not outside, Northern Ireland. Two factors make this progress hard to achieve and explain the delay that has recently exasperated Blair. The first is that the majority of Northern Ireland's population feels alienated from the entire Good Friday process. They believe it has resulted in the rehabilitation of terrorists in return for very little.

The second factor stems from the first. Fed up with the "constructive ambiguity" that has left the IRA and Loyalist Godfathers still holding their communities in thrall many people (both Catholic and Protestant) have lost faith in the legitimacy of the Good Friday Agreement; others have simply abandoned politics altogether and no longer vote. Today, the parties of the extreme, Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein (the political arm of the IRA) on the Catholic side and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the protestant one, dominate, almost by default.

Luckily, President Bush's inability (or refusal) to speak ambiguously is one of his greatest strengths. So, while making no great claims to a convoluted Irish ancestry, unlike his predecessor in the White House and his recent Democratic challenger, he has focused on practical efforts to contribute to peace in the one area where a US administration can make a difference - pressuring the gunmen to fulfill their commitment to decommission terrorist weapons.

Even prior to 9/11 and his declaration of war on terrorism, Bush was clear that "there should be no mistake that we believe the decommissioning part of the Good Friday Agreement must be upheld". In May 2001, four months before 9/11, his administration designated the Real IRA, a splinter group of the mainstream IRA responsible for the death of 30 people at Omagh in 1998, a terrorist organization. This made it illegal for Americans to give the group money, and allowed for a freezing of its US assets and barring of its members from entering the country.

This policy has continued since 9/11. In late December 2001, under Executive Order 13224, then Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the Continuity Irish Republican Army a foreign terrorist organization under the Immigration and Nationality Act. In July 2004, senior State Department official Richard Boucher announced the decision to amended the designation to include the aliases Continuity Army Council and Republican Sinn Fein.

Indeed, the Bush administration's tough talk since 9/11 combined with a period of intense US pressure on Sinn Fein, following the arrest of three Irish men in Colombia on the charge of instructing the FARC in bomb-making techniques, was partly responsible for the October 2002 breakthrough on IRA decommissioning. This was something even President Clinton failed to achieve prior to leaving office.

This approach has won the praise of Irish premier Bertie Ahern. Speaking at the annual St. Patrick's Day White House celebrations last March, he was effusive: "We thank you, Mr. President, for your continued and strong commitment to the implementation of the Good Friday agreements." In a speech before the Heritage Foundation in the same month, David Trimble went even further. In particular, he rejected Democrat attacks on Bush's commitment to Northern Ireland and he argued that "in terms of delivering and achieving, we have found the Bush White House to be more effective [than the Democrats]".

As Ezra Pound once observed: "The problem after any revolution is what to do with your gunmen". Since 9/11, Bush has shown that he has very clear views on what to do with the gunmen.

Bush will continue to support his closest ally Tony Blair and the Irish government as they move towards their goal: the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland (it was abandoned in 2002 when the peace process ground to a halt). Any final settlement requires the parties to the peace process to provide convincing proofs that those once wedded to violence have given it up for good. This is supported by a US administration that maintains the unequivocal position that "there is no place for paramilitaries in a democratic society". Such a stance may never earn Bush the acclaim that Clinton garnered from his involvement in Northern Ireland, but the proponents of true democracy and peace in Ireland will be eternally grateful.

Rory Miller teaches US and EU foreign policy at the University of London. Simon Kingston writes frequently about European affairs.


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