London (CNSNews.com) - As Ireland waits to see how America's new administration tackles Irish policy, senior politicians in Northern Ireland's unionist community have expressed deep reservations about President Clinton playing a "peace envoy" role after he leaves the White House.
Clinton this month indicated he would accept the challenge if asked by both sides in the Protestant-Catholic divide to continue his mediation efforts. The British and Irish prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, are keen that he do so.
But unionist leaders see Clinton as having been far too cozy with the republican Sinn Fein, whose IRA allies' continued refusal to destroy or give up their weapons caches remains a threat to the peace process.
Clinton is reportedly engaged in secret negotiations with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, urging him to persuade the IRA to announce the beginning of disarmament.
Blair and Ahern are concerned that a failure to move on the weapons issue could result in the toppling of David Trimble, the unionist leader who also heads up the Belfast power-sharing executive set up under the 1998 U.S.-brokered Good Friday agreement.
Trimble faces considerable opposition within his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) from elements who believe that the unionists, despite being in the majority in Northern Ireland, have been called upon to make the lion's share of compromises in the peace deal.
UUP deputy leader John Taylor this week rejected a continuing role for Clinton.
"Bill Clinton, at the end of the day, is a Democrat," he said. "And the Democrats are controlled by the American Irish."
Similar sentiments were expressed by other unionists. Many distrust Clinton's impartiality. The outgoing president has twice embraced Adams in public, most recently during his farewell visit to Ireland earlier this month.
Also, Clinton this month backed a State Department decision to halt the deportation from the U.S. of nine Irish nationals convicted of IRA-related crimes. He said the move did not constitute approval of their crimes, but was aimed at contributing to the peace process.
Back in 1994, Clinton granted Adams a visa to visit the U.S., prematurely in the eyes of many unionists and Britons. (Two years later, at the Republican Party convention, former Secretary of State James Baker accused Clinton of hosting "a representative of the IRA ... in the White House just prior to its resumption of terrorist bombings in London. The result has been the worst relationship with our closest ally, Britain, since the Boston tea-party.")
Taylor predicted that many members of the UUP and smaller unionist parties would refuse to cooperate with Clinton if he assumes an "envoy" role.
Bush and Ireland
Meanwhile, speculation continues about the likely policies of President-elect George W. Bush vis-\'e0-vis Ireland.
Writing in Ireland on Sunday, pro-republican commentator Niall O'Dowd challenged the generally held view that the Bush administration would be far less involved in Irish affairs than its predecessor.
O'Dowd, editor of the New York-based Irish Voice, pointed to a number of Bush-affiliated politicians considered knowledgeable about Irish affairs, who, he said may hold senior positions in the new administration, or be influential in Congress.
They included the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Oklahoma, Tommy Thompson and Frank Keating, and Republican U.S. Representatives James Walsh (N.Y.), Peter King (N.Y.), Ben Gilman (N.Y.) and Chris Smith (N.J.).
O'Dowd said the situation in the Senate did not look quite "as rosy for Irish Americans," but pointed out that the possible early departure of such Republican stalwarts as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms would change the balance of power, since Democrats would replace them. The states Thurmond and Helms represent, South and North Carolina, both have Democratic governors, who would actually appointment Senate replacements.
If this occurred, he added, "key senators such as Edward Kennedy and Hillary Clinton would have significant clout on Ireland."
Bush's choice of ambassador to Dublin is also seen as a major indicator of how the new administration will deal with Ireland.
The current ambassador, former Wyoming governor Mike Sullivan, is a good friend of Clinton's, but is also said to be close to Vice President-elect Dick Cheney.
The race to succeed him has already begun, according to reports here.
California businessman Tom Tracy reportedly wants the job. A flamboyant multi-millionaire, he switched sympathies from the Irish republicans to the unionists in the early 1990s, although his supporters argue that he has supported causes on both sides of the divide.
Others whose names have been raised include Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson and Mike Finnegan, a former chief of staff to New York governor George Pataki.
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