The United States is presently engaged in a humanitarian military mission in Iraq. Meanwhile, in Gaza, the US has been intensely involved in diplomacy to end conflict, while at the time supporting and arming Israel. It’s a tricky combination. But there is one place where US foreign policy has been entirely uncomplicated and well received and where it doesn’t involve any guns or planes. And that is, Ireland.
From its crucial involvement in the breakthrough IRA ceasefire of 1994, the US has retained a low key, but often intense, involvement in the struggling but generally successful Northern Ireland peace process. And it is a completely bipartisan commitment.
George Bush sent Richard Haass to Ireland as his special envoy and in 2013 Haass returned to chair crucial talks between Unionists and Nationalists in trying to achieve a lasting settlement of the issues that still divide them. The talks ended unsuccessfully in December 2013.
Not only is the Haass process an important part of the political scene, it might be the only show in town. The Irish and British governments are now so hands-off that it is left to the Yanks to try and resolve those crucial ‘final issues.’
The Haass talks process was the first time that neither government got directly involved in such negotiations, and in the end this was probably part of its failing. At the final hurdle, the Unionists rejected a reasonable template for dealing with parading issues and this caused the talks to collapse.
And there was nothing more that Haass could do, especially since the Dublin government is unwilling to put serious pressure on the Unionists and now appears more preoccupied in dealing with Sinn Fein as political threat in the South rather than as the nationalist co-partner of government in the North. Such a complacent and cynical attitude will have dangerous consequences.
Last week, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that the Northern Ireland peace process is under its greatest threat since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It is a dramatic claim, but one with very valid points. Apart from the impasses over commemoration of the past, contentious parades and the fudged NI welfare bill (which, in fairness, is Sinn Fein’s doing) there is a serious lack of any empathy from the Unionist side for the entire partnership to actually work or grow. Fearful of their radical fringe, the Unionists have taken a completely minimalist approach to a unique cross-community agreement that is supposed to be organic.
Compounding the problem is the withdrawn attitude of the two governments. David Cameron’s British Government appears sublimely indifferent and even hostile to the Northern peace process and the Irish Government seems to have just switched off, preoccupied as it is with the South’s economic problems.
The mentality in the South is that ‘the two sides are in Stormont together, so we can ignore it.’ But this is the very opposite of what was supposed to happen, after 1998, certainly from a Sinn Fein or even Irish Government perspective – that is, when the latter actually had a view on the situation. And the North hasn’t bedded down. Far from it, and the psychological withdrawal of the two governments, Irish and British, is partly to blame for that. Almost every week now there are new rows about political identity, flags and parades as well as attacks on Orange halls and GAA clubs. Sectarianism is deep-rooted and both sides play to their tribal base.
The unique coalition of SF and the DUP will not work unless there is constant pressure by the two governments acting as guarantors for the post-conflict arrangement. This is especially necessary when the relationship has gone cold and the two partners are barely talking to each other.
But it is hard to see the new Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan tackling the current Unionist stubbornness. Indeed, it is significant how few of the current Irish cabinet have dealt directly with Northern Ireland. Do they even believe in an ‘Irish dimension’ any more or in the constitutional nationalist position which is long held by the Irish State and which has always been distinct from that of Sinn Fein? Or do they think that any such national approach is now ‘outdated’ and will only in fact aid Sinn Fein, which they see as an electoral enemy?
Certainly, it seems odd that, in terms of negotiations, the US government appears to show more involvement, commitment and imagination on Northern Ireland that does the Irish government. Which these days is a rarely trumpeted and uncostly success story for US foreign policy, and one which is to the credit of both Democrats and Republicans alike.