It has been said here and elsewhere, but it bears repeating: President Bill Clinton, fairly and unfairly maligned for all sorts of foreign policy mishaps, has helped win peace in a corner of the earth that has known intractable conflict for most of the millennium. Peace in Northern Ireland would be a stunning triumph for the Clinton Administration and its vision of a world where commerce and consumerism can heal ethnic and sectarian division. As legacies go, presidents could do a lot worse.
Predicting the future in Northern Ireland, whether in the next 24 hours or the next quarter-century, is a business best left to the brave and the foolish. Nearly everything hinges on a meeting of the largest Protestant-Unionist party on Nov. 27, which could either lead to a final agreement or could present yet another obstacle to peace. But all indicators suggest that the energy which Mr. Clinton has invested in Ireland is about to pay off, with dividends for the people of the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain.
Author Jack Holland, a Belfast native and a columnist at the Irish Echo newspaper, summed up the frightening dilemma of Northern Ireland in the 1990′s in the title of his new book, Hope Against History . Had Mr. Clinton paid attention to the sobering lessons of the latter rather than cling to promise of the former, he surely would not have involved himself so personally in what so often seemed to be a thankless task. But now, after grueling negotiations chaired by the President’s special emissary, former Senator George Mitchell, hope does appear triumphant.
“This is an example of American foreign policy at its best,” said Niall O’Dowd, the founding publisher of the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine. “This hasn’t been about sending helicopters into another country. It’s about a superpower using its proper influence over two friends, Britain and Ireland.”
It ought to be remembered that the President’s aggressive, rules-breaking diplomacy in Ireland is the result of no focus group or poll. Irish-Americans rarely if ever ask if a candidate is “good for Northern Ireland”-whatever that might mean. If they did, they surely would not have been among the disaffected Democrats whom Ronald Reagan and George Bush won over throughout the 1980′s. Those two Republicans followed the British line on matters Irish, and yet they counted Irish-Americans as an important part of three successful national coalitions.
No, Mr. Clinton’s peacemaking is based on qualities not always associated with his White House: idealism, determination, a sense of justice and terrific timing. On the latter score, the Administration got no small bit of help from a group of amateur diplomats in New York, chief among them William Flynn, chairman of Mutual of America, and Mr. O’Dowd. They understood early on in the Clinton years that the time was right for American intervention in a bloody dispute that has baffled a generation of professional diplomats. Long before the Irish Republican Army declared a cease-fire, the New Yorkers served as an invaluable conduit between Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the Clinton White House, and helped persuade Mr. Clinton’s former national security adviser, Tony Lake, that Mr. Adams was indeed the key to winning a settlement that was unimaginable when the Reagan-Bush White House treated Mr. Adams as an international outlaw. Now, Mr. Adams and Sinn Fein are on the verge of becoming part of a new, multiparty government in Northern Ireland. And the main Unionist leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, has conceded that Irish nationalists have legitimate aspirations-an assertion that is heresy in Mr. Trimble’s Protestant community.
It is an astonishing turn of events, made possible in part through the subtle use of language. For example, Mr. Holland, a keen observer of his native land, noted that at a critical moment in mid-November, the I.R.A. issued a statement stating that it was “committed unequivocally to the search for freedom, justice and peace” in Northern Ireland. “The word ‘search’ replaced the word ‘struggle’” in the I.R.A.’s lexicon, Mr. Holland noted. The shift in language persuaded Mr. Holland that a breakthrough was, in fact, at hand. “And what it means is that as Ireland enters the new millennium, we see the beginning of the end of the I.R.A. as we knew it for most of this century,” Mr. Holland said.
History practically shouted that such an outcome was impossible. Hope, however, insisted that the time was right to do what was right.
When Mr. Trimble and Mr. Adams, representing hostile traditions, cultures and communities, broke bread with each other for the first time, they did so in the American Embassy in London, under the watchful eye of Mr. Clinton’s emissary, Mr. Mitchell. Those who study Irish history, like Mr. Holland and Mr. O’Dowd, understand what a difficult challenge Mr. Clinton undertook, and how rich the rewards will be.