The intense level of British concern about Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign promise to appoint a special US envoy to Northern Ireland is evident in a number of official files just released in Belfast.
The Conservative government of John Major took the view that appointing an envoy would be an unwelcome intervention and believed it would be better if the Clinton administration could be encouraged to provide economic assistance or send a one-off fact finding mission to Northern Ireland led by someone regarded as sympathetic to Britain, such as the speaker of the House of Representatives, Tom Foley.
A letter from a senior UK diplomat in the Washington embassy, Richard Ralph, dated 27th January 1993, advised that the UK should “continue to oppose the concept of a ‘peace envoy’ to conduct shuttle diplomacy between the internal parties (including Sinn Féin)”.
One of Mr Ralph’s colleagues at the Washington embassy, Jonathan Powell, wrote on March 1st 1993 that “after several relatively quiet years we have seen more activity on Northern Ireland in the first few months of this year largely as a result of Clinton’s unhelpful statements during the campaign”.
Mr Powell wrote, however, that it was important to “keep this campaign in perspective…we have already taken steps to limit damage” and “we have emphasised to the Justice and State departments the need to keep Gerry Adams out and they appear to agree”.
Within a few years of penning these words, Mr Powell got a new job as chief of staff to Tony Blair and found himself working in close proximity to both Mr Adams and the man Mr Clinton appointed as US envoy, the talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell.
The tradition of appointing a UN envoy has continued since, with some breaks. Joe Kennedy III was named before Christmas as the latest appointment by president Joe Biden.
Back in 1993, the question of a US envoy was “a major preoccupation… including at the highest levels” in the weeks after Mr Clinton’s appointment as president, a senior British official Peter Bell wrote.
“How this issue finally resolves itself,” Mr Bell said “may affect a wide range of other NI issues involving the United States some with potential to affect the wider US/UK relationship.” In a letter on March 2nd, Bell urged his colleagues “you may want to read Conor O’Clery’s article in Saturday’s Irish Times which reflected gleefully on the allegedly falling ‘pull’ of the Brits in Washington”.
Other documents released in Belfast show UK officials considered how to channel Mr Clinton’s declared interest in Northern Ireland into economic assistance rather than political interference.
One idea discussed was creating a special link with his home state of Arkansas. However they concluded that Clinton’s state might be too poor to provide “fertile ground for inward investment contracts”.
Danny McNeill from the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington had been tasked to check the proposal out, but he quickly injected “a note of caution. Arkansas is not Georgia. Georgia has Atlanta, still regarded by many as the capital of the South. Georgia is larger and richer.” Mr McNeill pointed out that “Arkansas is also poor - ranked 48th in the USA; compared to Georgia at 27th” with a per capita income in Arkansas of less than $13,000.
Another official, David Brooker, added a “nagging doubt at the back of my mind” about Mr Clinton’s home state. So far, he recalled, Arkansas had not signed the MacBride principles - an Irish American campaign opposed by the UK pledging potential investors to take action on job discrimination in Northern Ireland. Mr Brooker feared that “were we to establish a prestigious commercial link, this might kick back to Clinton’s national policies in terms of the MacBride principles”.
The consensus amongst the civil servants was “there are no current ties with Arkansas; nor is there any case for seeking to forge links for economic, social or political purposes”. The decision was to go back “gently” to the US consul general with a “negative response”.