British tried to stop Clinton’s plan for peace envoy to the North
Northern Ireland archives: Declassified files reveal efforts to Bill Clinton’s block the proposal
US president Bill Clinton greets wellwishers outside the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in 1998. Photograph: Doug Mills/AP
Former US senator George Mitchell gestures during a news conference at Castle Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, Thursday, July 22nd, 1999. Photograph: AP Photo/Peter Morrison
The proposal by Bill Clinton, US presidential candidate in 1992, to appoint a “peace envoy” for Northern Ireland caused deep concern in British government circles, according to the newly declassified files released today in Belfast under the 20/30-year rule.
The papers chart the determined efforts of British diplomats and the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew to influence leading Irish-American politicians and a key Clinton adviser to drop the idea. In his autobiography, My Life (2004), Clinton refers to a late-night meeting he had in 1992 with “about a hundred Irish activists” including Paul O’Dwyer (the veteran New York politician), Niall O’Dowd (editor of the Irish Voice) and Peter King (a Republican Congressman).
“They wanted me to promise to appoint a special representative to push for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland on terms that were fair to the Catholic minority. I had also encouraged to do this by Boston mayor, Ray Flynn . . . I said I would do it and . . . push for an end to discrimination against Northern Ireland’s Catholics . . . Though I knew it would infuriate the British and strain our most important transatlantic alliance, I had become convinced that the US . . . might be able to facilitate a breakthrough.’
In a telegram to the British embassy in Washington, dated December 11th, 1992, following Clinton’s presidential victory, the British ambassador to Washington, Robin Renwick reported to the Northern secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew that he had raised the matter of president-elect Clinton’s letter to Congressman Bruce Morrison (organiser of Irish-Americans for Clinton) containing the “peace envoy” idea with Clinton’s foreign policy adviser, Sandy Berger. The ambassador informed Mayhew: “I told Berger that Governor Clinton’s letter to Congressman Morrison had caused a lot of concern and produced a very adverse press reaction in Britain”.
Informing the presidential adviser of recent IRA violence in Britain, Renwick told Berger, Clinton’s foreign policy and later deputy national security adviser: “We have just witnessed an exhibition of the wanton use of lethal force by the IRA in Manchester this morning. This was a matter on which the British people were united. Sinn Féin won just one per cent of the vote in the Irish election. They had never been able to win a majority of Catholic votes in the North. Gerry Adams had been defeated by the SDLP in the last [British general] election”. The Anglo-Irish Agreement had laid down the framework for a settlement, he stressed, while the UK government was “co-operating with the Irish Government”.
The ambassador informed Mayhew: “I told Berger that I had advised HMG [Her Majesty’s government] not to react too sharply to a letter written in the midst of the [presidential] election campaign. I said when the prime minister [John Major] met Governor Clinton he would . . . want to emphasise the difficulties of the task we faced in Northern Ireland and to stress that further statements should only be made after conversations with him.” The diplomat asked that his telegram should be passed on to “Number Ten”.
In a further telegram from Washington to the NIO, dated December 23rd, 1993, for the attention of Mayhew and Sir John Chilcot [head of the NIO], Renwick reported a conversation with the House Speaker, Tom Foley whom he described as a leading moderate Irish-American. Foley said he had “talked to Governor Clinton at some length about Northern Ireland” and that the President-elect had responded to the points he had made and “he believed that he would now adopt a more cautious approach” to the Irish Question.
Two months later on March 11th, 1993, following Clinton’s inauguration, the British ambassador in Dublin, David Blatherwick, drew his government’s attention to an interview with Speaker Foley in The Irish Times in which he was “non-committal about [Clinton’s] Special Envoy idea and sceptical about the MacBride Principles’ on fair employment in Northern Ireland. Foley said that the White House took the view that if an envoy was “helpful and constructive”, the President would consider it but not if it were “damaging” to the ongoing political talks in Northern Ireland. Blatherwick told London: “Foley’s outspoken and sensible comments should help stiffen Irish spines on the proposal of a peace envoy/fact-finding mission”.
The issue of a peace envoy re-surfaced during a visit to the United States in May 1993 by Northern Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew. According to a report by ambassador Renwick in advance of the visit, dated May 4th, 1993, recent terrorist outrages in the UK had put IRA supporters in the US on the defensive. In particular, the ambassador felt that “the World Trade Centre bombing in New York [by Middle Eastern terrorists in February 1993] had given Americans some idea of what living with terrorism is like”.
The ambassador informed Mayhew that President Clinton had “wisely backed off his campaign promises . . . The National Security Council [NSC]tells us that the Peace Envoy proposal is firmly on the back burner. As long as there is a prospect of the [Northern Ireland] talks resuming, there is unlikely to be pressure to revive the idea.” However, he advised caution on the part of the British government: “It is important that we do not make it hard for Clinton to back off by publicly pronouncing the proposal dead . . .”
He stated that the administration had just turned down Gerry Adams’s application for a visa to visit the US, noting “the Secretary of State will wish to welcome that decision”. He went on: “Clinton’s support for the MacBride Principles is irritating . . . So far we have continued to get good co-operation from the administration on extradition [of IRA suspects] and on gun-running, notably in the case of the “Tucson Five”.’
In Renwick’s view, Mayhew’s forthcoming meeting with Clinton’s attorney-general, Janet Reno and FBI director, William Sessions offered an opportunity to reinforce the need for co-operation and to thank the US for its support for the International Fund for Ireland [IFI].
Overall, the diplomat noted, “Congress is dominated by moderate Irish-Americans, notably Speaker Foley who made a particularly helpful statement on Warrington [where an IRA bomb killed a three-year-old boy and wounded 56 people in March 1993] . . .” Foley, he noted, along with Senator Edward Kennedy and the Friends of Ireland had been “crucial in steering Irish-American opinion in a more moderate direction.”
The Northern Secretary would also have an opportunity to meet Senator Dodd who had engineered a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Northern Ireland focusing on alleged human rights abuses by the security forces.
However, he noted, “We have told him that the leading practitioners of such abuses are the IRA”. Among those who were “less helpful” towards the British case in Congress, he felt “were motivated by constituency groups”.
“Joe Kennedy [a Democratic Congressman] has been pushed into condemning the IRA. Peter King, a newly-elected Republican Congressman from New York, is the first overt supporter of the IRA in Congress in recent memory”. King had gone to Belfast to meet Adams recently, but such people were “untypical” of Irish-American opinion generally.
Indeed, he noted, “The Irish-American community is more moderate over Northern Ireland than it was ten years ago. That is largely thanks to the Anglo-Irish Agreement”. Noraid was raising “less and less money” for the IRA cause. However, the FBI were dealing vigorously with weapon purchases. “The large majority of interested Irish-Americans are broadly-speaking Nationalists. John Hume has a lot of influence here,” Renwick wrote.
Turning to Mayhew’s forthcoming US tour, the diplomat felt that the Secretary of State should stress (paraphrasing Peter Brooke’s landmark 1990 speech) “that the UK has no selfish interest in Northern Ireland and is prepared to accept any solution acceptable to both communities”.
The issue of a Clinton envoy re-emerged during Mayhew’s visit to Boston to meet Irish-American representatives in May 1993. A report from the British embassy in Washington to the foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd records that while a meeting with the Boston mayor, Ray Flynn – a key supporter of Clinton – went well, the mayor informed Mayhew that “President Clinton was still considering the question of a peace envoy”.
Flynn said that if Clinton went back on his word the President would suffer “serious political consequences”. He [Flynn] had delivered the Irish-American votes on the basis of the President’s commitment to play a more active role in Northern Ireland. Irish-Americans were concerned that, having reneged on other election promises, the president was about to do the same on the “peace envoy”.’
“What about a US ‘observer’ at the [Northern Ireland] talks?,” Flynn asked Mayhew. According to the ambassador, Sir Patrick had “explained the difficulty of the suggestion” but added that he “understood the political pressures facing the president”.
Clinton’s proactive interest in an Irish settlement continued. In January 1994, he incensed the Major government by granting Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams a visa to travel to the United States and that December, he appointed former Senator George Mitchell as an economic envoy to Northern Ireland. Mitchell – effectively Clinton’s envoy – would go on to chair the ground-breaking talks which led to the Belfast Agreement.