The United States and Northern Ireland: A Transatlantic Perspective on Problems and Solutions


On the 16th and 17th September, the Clinton Institute hosted a colloquium, organised by Professor Maurice Bric of the UCD School of History and Archives, entitled “The United States and Northern Ireland: Transatlantic Perspectives on Problems and Solutions”.  This conference was opened by Lucinda Creighton, TD for Dublin South East and Minister for State at the Department of An Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs.  Minister Creighton commented on the relationship between Ireland and the United States and the importance developing an all-Ireland identity.  She also highlighted Ireland’s role in the United States, citing the 220 Irish companies who employ 82,000 people there.

The opening panel, chaired by Professor Bric, a member of the Clinton Institute’s board of advisors and author of Ireland, Philadelphia and the Re-Invention of America, 1760-1800 among other works on Irish-America, featured Professor Paul Arthur from the University of Ulster, Queen’s University Belfast Professor Lord Bew and Professor Catherine Shannon from Westfield State University.  Professor Arthur argued against the myth that Irish-America had any political clout, citing examples to support his argument.  He also highlighted the role of President Carter’s 1977 statement on Northern Ireland, the first public declaration on the issue by any United States President.  Professor Bew, while highlighting the role of Ulster Presbyterians in creating the political institutions of the United States, focused on the Clinton era, strongly criticising Unionist politicians for their failure to engage in a meaningful way with any elected officials in Washington, DC.  Finally, Professor Shannon discussed the role of the Boston Irish in the Northern Irish question, contending that their initially simplistic analysis developed to a more fully interactive role by the 1990s.

On Saturday morning,  U.S.  Ambassador Dan Rooney and his wife joined the conference.  The second session began with an introduction from University of Ulster Professor Monica McWilliams, the outgoing Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.  Given Ambassador Rooney’s presence, it was appropriate that the first paper came from Dr Sean O hUiginn, a former Ambassador of Ireland to the United States.  Dr O hUiginn recalled his time in the United States, both as Consul General during the early 1980s and his subsequent role as Ambassador during the period 1997-2002, crucial years for the Northern Irish peace process.  He was followed by Professor John Coakley from UCD’s School of Politics who emphasised that while the intervention of the United States in Northern Ireland might have been against UK wishes, it was certainly not against UK interests.  The two Mayomen were able to compare the successes of migrants from their own parishes in the United States; interestingly, both parishes produced a Cardinal.

The third panel, entitled “The Media and Northern Ireland” was chaired by Clinton Institute Director, Professor Liam Kennedy.  He introduced the session speaking about the concept of frames which are useful for analysing the involvement of the media in conflict, a topic which was furthered by the second talk from Professor Michael Breen (University of Limerick) who spoke about agenda setting theory.  He provided quantitative data which supported an assertion that President Clinton’s involvement in the peace process was primarily a local story and part of a personal agenda rather than a policy priority.  His talk followed that of prominent Irish-American and UCD alum, Niall O’Dowd (The Irish Voice).  O’Dowd spoke of his role from within the United States particularly during the 1990s.  He cited the importance that support for the peace process from the New York Times assumed for him personally and Irish-America in general.

The final session, chaired by Professor Robert Brigham from Vassar College, focused on the Clinton Presidency.  Brigham introduced the session with comments about Clinton’s wider foreign policy issues.  Professor John Dumbrell from the University of Durham then argued that the guiding core to foreign policy under Clinton was in fact a desire to keep the United States on an internationalist path.  The second talk came from Ohio Wesleyan University Professor Sean Kay who spoke about the important development from war to peace and then on to peacebuilding, citing examples from his research on continuing issues in Northern Ireland which could affect prospects of a lasting peace.  Finally Professor Mark Bradley from the University of Chicago spoke, providing insight into the wider international context of late-twentieth century conflicts, notably in Algeria and Vietnam, and how these might be relevant to the Irish example.

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