On Saturday 17 November, the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies hosted a further colloquium in its series on the relationship between the United States and Northern Ireland. Following on from the event of 16 and 17 September 2011. “The United States and Northern Ireland: The Diplomatic Perspective” sought to explore one particular path of the narrative of the relevant relationships: how it is interpreted by those who were involved as public servants and diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. It examined the issue in three workshops, which considered how the issue of Northern Ireland impacted upon the diplomatic relationships between the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.
The first panel, chaired by Professor Maurice Bric of the UCD School of History and Archives, featured former Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States, Peter Jay, and former Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, Dr Sean Donlon. This panel offered the rare opportunity to directly compare the experiences of British and Irish diplomats as the two had shared time in Washington, DC during the late 1970s. Providing the audience with illuminating insight into the careful process of diplomacy at a highly volatile period of international relations, the two exchanged stories of their time in Washington, Jay’s from 1977 until 1979 and Donlon’s from 1978 to 1981. Both saw their positions challenged by a change of government in their home nation: Jay’s time in Washington ended when newly-elected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replaced him with Sir Nicholas “Nicko” Henderson; Donlon’s term in Washington was nearly cut short by Taoiseach Charles Haughey until protest from a variety of Irish-American politicians forced Haughey into a change of heart.
The second panel, chaired by the Clinton Institute’s John Moore Newman fellow, Dr Andrew Sanders, featured Lord Kerr, the former Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States between 1995 and 1997, Dr Kevin McNamara, the former Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the author of an important book on the MacBride Principles, and Professor Andrew Wilson of Loyola University Chicago. Lord Kerr introduced the important European dimension to the discussion, while providing important insight from the latter years of the Major Government, a time when the foundations upon which Tony Blair’s Labour Government could build were set. Dr McNamara spoke about the role and perception of the Labour Party during its time in opposition, particularly to the government of Margaret Thatcher, to the role of the United States in Northern Ireland. Finally, Professor Wilson spoke about the role of Unionists in the United States, in particular the “Operation USA” tour of the early 1980s.
Following lunch, Professor Robert Gerwarth, the Director of the UCD Centre for War Studies, chaired a panel featuring Sir Jonathan Phillips, formerly the Permanent Secretary to the Northern Ireland Office, former Ambassador of Ireland to the United Kingdom Daithi O Ceallaigh, and Washington-based Attorney and public policy adviser, Mr Paul S. Quinn. Sir Jonathan provided insight into the Northern Irish dimension, in particular how he and the Northern Ireland Office played a part in the establishment of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Daithi O Ceallaigh introduced the Irish-in-Britain dimension, an important and often under-appreciated side of the story, although his talk drew from years of experience in both Ireland, the United States and the United Kingdom. Paul Quinn spoke of his career in Irish affairs from an American perspective, detailing exactly how the relationships within the United States played an important part throughout the Northern Irish conflict and how these can continue to influence the path of Northern Ireland into the new century. The third panel closed with comments from Irish Times political correspondent Deaglan de Breadun.
Final comments were provided by Professor Ronan Fanning,
Since 1968, the involvement of individual Americans, American organisations and agencies and eventually, the American government in the “troubles of Northern Ireland have been motivated by a variety of factors. Some of these have been informed by historical memory; some by the complex nature of America – and in particular, Irish-America – society and politics; and still others by the need to address a problem which while regional in nature, was also informing, and informed by, international politics and relationships.
The relative importance of these motivations also varied over time and in particular, by differences in the ways in which the relevant actors both within Northern Ireland and within Britain and Ireland were assessing the nature of the issue. While such changes in attitude and political approach were motivated by regional circumstances and the personalities who shaped them, they were often guided by the continuing American interest in Northern Ireland.
However, such American interest had also been changing over the years. While Jimmy Carter had tended to see the “troubles” of Northern Ireland in terms of human rights, Ronald Reagan saw them as an issue which should not be allowed to destabilise the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. While paradoxically, this gave Northern Ireland a new importance in American eyes, it was not until President Clinton was elected that the influence of the American government was most powerfully deployed to move the issues involved towards closure. In doing so, it celebrated a particular president. However, it also celebrated the United States as a broker which could use its good offices to encourage solutions to political problems on whichever part of the globe they might be.
In September 2011, the Clinton Institute hosted a successful colloquium on the topic of “The United States and Northern Ireland: A Transatlantic Perspective on Problems and Solutions”. It examined some of these issues: how Northern Ireland was perceived at various levels of American society and politics, and how these perceptions were assessed in turn in Ireland and Britain.
The proposed continuing colloquium will focus on one particular path of the narrative of the relevant relationships: how it is interpreted by those who were involved as public servants and diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. It will examine the issue in three workshops, which will consider how the issue of Northern Ireland impacted upon the diplomatic relationships between the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.