Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970

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Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970

Toward the end of the nineteenth century there was evidence of a "second front" in the United States in the British-Irish conflict—Fenian raids in Canada in 1866 and 1870 and a succession of "Irish race conventions." It was given greater credence during World War I when the "Irish Question" was transformed from an essentially domestic problem into one occupying the international stage; until December 1921 the Irish Question plagued Anglo-American relations. But there is little evidence that subsequently the conflict had any real impact on U.S. domestic or foreign policy. The reasons are simple: The United States and United Kingdom enjoyed a "special relationship" based on similar interests and ideologies, and secondly, Ireland's tradition of neutrality antagonized successive U.S. administrations, an attitude made clear by National Security Council (NSC) statements in 1950 and 1960. Indeed, a rare antipartition resolution that had made its way into the U.S. House of Representatives was decisively defeated in September 1951.

Following civil unrest in Northern Ireland in 1968, the situation began to change as Irish America became united in its sense of moral outrage. In June 1969 Representatives Tip O'Neill and Philip Burton obtained 100 signatures appealing to President Richard Nixon complaining about "discrimination against Catholics." By October 1971 Senator Edward Kennedy was calling for British withdrawal, and a month after Bloody Sunday there was a three-day public hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe. None of this dented the administration's insistence that although what was happening in Northern Ireland was a tragedy, it was a matter internal to the United Kingdom.

After that, Irish America ceased to speak with one voice. As in Ireland, a split occurred between the physical-force and the constitutional wings. First came the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID), founded in 1970 by a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Its stated aim was to raise funds for prisoners' families, but the authorities considered it to be an IRA front and forced it in 1984 to register with the attorney general as an agent of the IRA. Such was the concern about NORAID's activities that in a private meeting with President Ronald Reagan at a G7 summit in July 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "thank[ed] him warmly for his tough stand against Irish terrorism and its NORAID supporters." The Irish National Caucus (INC) and the (Congressional) Ad Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs shared NORAID's declared goals but were concerned about its image. The INC, founded in 1974, was endorsed by thirty different Irish-American groups to lobby the U.S. government from a militant nationalist perspective. The Ad Hoc group, founded in 1977, sought to revise existing State Department policies. Both were opposed by the Irish government, Irish constitutional nationalists, and the "Four Horsemen"—Senators Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, and New York Governor Hugh Carey. The Horsemen were influenced by the fundamental opposition of John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to the IRA campaign, a fact reflected in their Saint Patrick's Day statement in 1977 and subsequently. In 1981 the Horsemen, anxious to counter the Ad Hoc group and conscious that the Republican Party controlled the White House, metamorphosed into the bipartisan Friends of Ireland.

The Irish-American split indicated weakness in Congress during the 1970s. In retrospect, the high point was President Jimmy Carter's statement in August 1977 in which he condemned violence, expressed support for a peaceful solution that would involve the Irish government, and promised U.S. investment in the event of such a settlement. Northern Ireland was now considered a legitimate concern of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, the president raised human rights and discrimination issues that were exploited by the lobbyists in the coming years. Finally, the sentiments were similar to those written into the preamble of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985. Intensive lobbying began to pay off during the Reagan presidency. Although Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher were committed to defeating the "international network of terrorism," the president needed the Speaker's support in Congress; in addition, he was influenced by his close friend William P. Clark, a member of his administration and a supporter of Irish unity. On the one hand, Reagan resisted Irish requests to intervene in the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 and in the deliberations of constitutional nationalism's New Ireland Forum (1984); on the other, he gave total support to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

The agreement created, inter alia, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI), a U.S.-sponsored investment program for Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Republic. But the IFI was not accepted by Congress until 17 July 1986, the same day that a Supplementary Extradition Treaty that enabled the United States to extradite certain IRA suspects back to the United Kingdom was signed. The linking of these measures illustrated the gap between Irish America and the administration. The Bush administration simply kept a watching brief. Nevertheless, Irish America had entered a convergence phase. In a bid to secure more visas for Irish emigrants, Irish America had entered into coalitions with other ethnic groups. Coalition-building, even among Irish Americans, became attractive, especially because the SDLP and Sinn Féin began discussions in 1988 and continued them during the Hume-Adams talks after 1990. When Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidential election in 1992, Irish America was in a position to speak with one voice.

The appointment of Jean Kennedy Smith as Ireland's U.S. ambassador heralded a more interventionist period. By granting Gerry Adams a two-day visa in January 1994, Clinton enunciated a radical sea change in U.S. involvement in British-Irish relations. The British government, along with the U.S. State and Justice Departments, was furious—the president appeared to be "soft on terrorism." Granting the visa was a calculated and personal risk for Clinton, but he listened carefully to Irish Americans close to (Irish) republican thinking, to the Kennedys, to the Irish government and John Hume, and to trusted NSC staffers. All were satisfied that the IRA was serious about peace. The Adams visa unlocked the door: The president then tied the IRA more into the peace process through further visas, he sponsored a White House Conference on Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, and he appointed former senator George Mitchell as his special adviser on economic initiatives in Ireland in February 1995. Mitchell's role changed dramatically when the British secretary of state introduced the decommissioning issue in Washington in March and the peace process went into crisis. To expedite matters the president visited Britain and Ireland in November 1995. This led to a hastily summoned British-Irish summit that attempted to make parallel progress on decommissioning and all (Northern Ireland) party negotiations. George Mitchell was empowered to chair an international decommisioning panel that reported on 22 January 1996. But it was not enough to save the peace—the Provisional IRA detonated a bomb in London's Canary Wharf on 9 February, killing two people.

Despite this setback, Clinton persisted. George Mitchell was reinvented as chair of multiparty talks in Northern Ireland in June 1996. Over the next two years Mitchell displayed tremendous patience and diplomacy. Sinn Féin entered the process in September 1997 only after the IRA announced a "complete cessation of military operations" in July. They recognized that with Prime Minister Tony Blair's decisive May 1997 general election victory, they could commit themselves whole-heartedly to the search for peace. Blair and Clinton set a one-year deadline for the multiparty talks. Mitchell was more specific when, on 25 March 1998, he set 9 April as the date for agreement between the parties. Agreement was reached on 10 April after Clinton worked the phones assiduously, persuading the parties to sign on. "The Agreement Reached in Multiparty Negotiations" was a triumph for Anglo-Irish, Anglo-American, and Irish-American diplomacy. It demonstrated the huge influence of the Clinton administration and the president's own tenacity and vision, and it also showed the huge leap that the Anglo-American special relationship had taken.

SEE ALSO Adams, Gerry; Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 (Hillsborough Agreement); Decommissioning; Hume, John; Northern Ireland: Constitutional Settlement from Sunningdale to Good Friday; Northern Ireland: History since 1920; Trimble, David; Primary Documents: Anglo-Irish Agreement (15 November 1985); The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)


Arthur, Paul. "Diasporan Intervention in International Affairs: Irish America as a Case Study." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1, no. 2 (fall 1991): 143–162.

Arthur, Paul. Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Problem. 2001.

Mitchell, George J. Making Peace. 1999.

Wilson, Andrew J. Irish America and the Ulster Conflict, 1968–1995. 1995.

Paul Arthur

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Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970

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Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970