Clinton's Policies Under Fire In Northern Ireland

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - After a day of being feted in the Republic of Ireland, President Clinton found a rather different mood Wednesday when his visit took him north of the border and to the seat of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont, outside Belfast.

Several Protestant lawmakers in the Assembly questioned Clinton's policies and the resulting Good Friday peace agreement, and pointed to the Irish Republican Army's continued refusal to disarm.

Cedric Wilson of the small Northern Ireland Unionist Party - which has just three members in the Assembly - gave the president a hard-hitting letter which described the 1998 agreement as "an appeasement mechanism to meet the demands of terrorism and in particular the terrorism of the ... IRA."

The two-page letter called into question the Clinton administration's "deep-rooted moral ambiguity in the approach of your administration to terrorism in Northern Ireland.

"The unionist citizens of Northern Ireland have a high regard for the United States," it concluded. "But they look forward to a relationship with the United States based on the political bedrock of a common allegiance to the requirements of democracy and a common respect for the integrity of the rule of law."

Elements in the unionist community mistrust Clinton's even-handedness in dealing with the Northern Ireland parties, still unhappy with the fact he agreed to give Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Fein, a visa to visit the U.S. six years ago, at a time the IRA was still perpetrating terrorism.

Clinton has maintained that only by bringing the republicans in from the cold could a peace deal be achieved.

He said during an address in Dublin Tuesday: "We seemed paralyzed and prevented from playing a constructive role when I became president. I decided to change America's policy in the hope that in the end that not only the Irish, the British too, would be better off."

The Good Friday or Belfast agreement, brokered by former Senator George Mitchell, paved the way for Northern Ireland home rule, a power-sharing governing body or "executive" involving Protestants and Catholics, and a cross-border liaison with the Irish government in Dublin. Terrorist prisoners were freed.

Militant organizations on both sides of the divide agreed to disarm, and Britain undertook to reform the police force and scale down its troop presence in the province.

While power sharing is working, the process is under strain because the IRA has yet to begin giving up or destroying its weapons caches. Britain last February suspended home rule over this issue and then restored it three months later, but the disarmament issue remains unresolved, and the source of much unionist bitterness.

Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party, the third largest in the Assembly, said Clinton should make it clear the parties should live up to their commitments.

"What he could do, which would be positive from [the point of view of] the unionist community, would be to remind everybody involved in the signing of the agreement that they signed up the decommissioning of IRA weapons," he said.

"They signed up to progress in terms of moving people to exclusively peaceful and democratic means before the likes of Sinn Fein-IRA got into government."

Another DUP lawmaker, Ian Paisley Jr., clearly looked forward to a change of U.S. administrations: "In a matter of 39 days, there'll be a new president in the White House," he said. "And at that point, the president's heavy-handed involvement on the side of the IRA-Sinn Fein, the legitimizing of their cause, will wane.

"There's a major swath of unionists who [Clinton] hasn't convinced, and who aren't going to be bought by this process."

The DUP also complained that it was being left out of Wednesday's main series of meetings involving Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Clinton and Blair are holding talks with the leader of the main unionist party and First Minister of the Northern Ireland executive David Trimble, his deputy, the Roman Catholic nationalist Seamus Mallon, and Adams.

Former Senator Mitchell also joined the talks, which the Americans and British hope will help break the impasse over disarmament - although Clinton earlier sought to lower expectations of any breakthrough during his farewell visit to Ireland.

Terror Continues

Earlier, Clinton addressed more than 50,000 people gathered in the border town of Dundalk, where he urged members of dissident terror groups or their sympathizers: "You cannot win by making your neighbors lose."

"Stand up for peace today, tomorrow and the rest of your lives," he told the gathering. "That is what I came to ask you to do today - to redouble your efforts."

Dundalk is considered a stronghold of the dissident republican group, the Real IRA, which opposes the agreement and is continuing the violent campaign suspended by the mainstream IRA and its loyalist (Protestant) counterpart. The former IRA militant who heads the Real IRA lives just outside the town.

Despite earlier pleas by Trimble, Clinton did not use the opportunity to declare the Real IRA a proscribed terrorist group. The organization killed 31 people in a 1998 bombing in the town of Omagh, the worst single act of terrorism in the province's bloody history. Despite a huge investigation by police, who believe the bomb was constructed near Dundalk, no one has been charged with the deed.

U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger was quoted earlier as saying Clinton would not make the announcement Trimble had asked for, as there was a legal procedure that was still being undertaken, involving consultations with the British and Irish governments.

The relatives of some of the Omagh victims attended the Dundalk event.

In his letter to Clinton yesterday, unionist lawmaker Cedric Wilson said that while Clinton personally had identified with the Omagh outrage, his administration had failed to proscribe the perpetrators.

"The citizens of Northern Ireland are ... aware that the failure of your administration to proscribe the Real IRA means that these terrorists can continue to raise funds in the United States to finance the terrorism that you ostensibly condemn."

Clinton will visit London late Wednesday. He is scheduled to fly home Thursday after meeting Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace and receiving an honorary doctorate from Warwick University in the English Midlands.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow