from the pages of January 1996


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Bill's Excellent Irish Adventure

By Jim Dee


Bill Clinton finally got a break. Fleeing to international waters to side-step mounting domestic woes, he found sanctuary, and a dramatic ego-massage, in Ireland. Hours before his arrival in Britain, British Prime Minister John Major and his Irish counterpart John Bruton, called a supposedly “hastily-arranged” press conference to announce a “last-minute breakthrough” in the Irish peace process. Clinton's press entourage ate it up, dutifully trumpeting his pivotal role in the process. On the heels of Dayton, Clinton, the great peace-maker, was now ready to work his magic in Belfast. In reality, the two governments, quite masterfully, had simply provided Clinton the requisite glowing headlines, and backdrop for the long sought after unforgettable photo-ops, to help grab Irish-American votes back home. The next day, as Clinton traveled to Belfast and Derry, the U.S. was bombarded with images of the President addressing properly enthusiastic crowds, waving endless American flags (no doubt being saved in closets for just the right opportunity). As a media event, it doesn't get any better than this.

When Clinton, and more importantly, the prying eyes of the U.S. media, finally left, the British government breathed a massive sigh of relief. Their artful staging, specifically in feeding the eager press a history-making “scoop,” shifted attention from their hard-and-fast refusal to set a firm date for all-party peace talks. Back in the real world, deteriorating political conditions, which a week earlier led Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams to warn of the “imminent collapse” of the peace process, remained unchanged.

In fact, aside from the extremely vague mention of having an “aim” for talks in late-February, the “breakthrough” was simply a repackaging of proposals on the table for months. What is on offer is this: an international body will set up shop for six weeks; its primary (yet diplomatically obfuscated) task being to disarm the IRA. To create the desired public-relations illusion of progress toward all-party talks, current preliminary talks will be extended, albeit slightly modified, to run alongside those of the arms commission.

Here's where the devil in the details rears its ugly and pivotal head: the British government insists the arms commission complete its work, issue its findings, and that then they must agree with those findings before setting a firm date for all-party talks. Nationalists -- Sinn Fein, the IRA, and even the moderate, Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) -- have repeatedly rejected this. They insist that, given a 16-month cease-fire, a firm date for talks must be announced immediately, without further pre-conditions. The upshot is that, coming at a time when Adams has repeatedly stated “the peace process no longer exists,” the “breakthrough” publicity stunt may well convince hard-line republicans that Britain is more interested in media events than serious negotiations. From there, a resumption of the conflict is only a short step away.

Sadly, the Irish Republic's leader, John Bruton (who last April answered a reporter's query on Northern Ireland by blasting back, “I'm sick of answering questions about the fucking peace process.”) has been reluctant to confront British intransigence. His criticisms of Major's stalling have been tame and late in coming. Still, aware that the Irish public wants peace, he has gone through the motions. But, his bottom line, like Clinton's, is a quick settlement -- any settlement -- so he can return his undivided attention to assisting Irish big-business and their multi-national corporate overseers in feasting on cheap Irish labor.

Meanwhile, apparently beyond the surface-skimming capabilities of major media outlets in the U.S., frustration mounts in republican strongholds in Belfast and Derry. In mid-November a massive van bomb was intercepted by Irish police, thought destined to bring down a British army border watchtower, and likely the peace process with it. Two days later, the Belfast-based Irish News carried a photo of a new group, Arm na Phoblacta (Army of the Republic), vowing to carry the torch of armed resistance until British withdrawal was secured. Police linked the group to Sinn Fein, which split from the main republican movement in 1986 over electoral strategy. RSF denied the allegations, but went on to trash the peace process and defend the legitimacy of continued armed struggle. Whether or not RSF was involved is irrelevant. Almost a year and a half into an IRA cease-fire, many republican activists are resentful, feeling that their sincere and historic gesture of a cease-fire has met with only derision, and even contempt, by the British government. Major is seen as seeking a total and humiliating IRA surrender -- an extremely dangerous game to play. Stoking such smoldering resentment will eventually provoke what one senior republican recently termed the “fuck-it” factor. If that happens, Adams and McGuiness, the chief republican architects of the cease-fire, will be gone, and with them hopes for a just and peaceful settlement in the near future.

Jim Dee is a freelance reporter and contributing editor of Northern Ireland Report, POB 9086, Lowell, MA 01853.