Relevance of Ireland at issue in US amid echoes of peace process

America Letter: Memorial for Martin McGuinness underlines distance travelled

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams meets then US president Bill Clinton in the in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on St Patrick’s Day, 2000. Photograph: William Vasta/AFP/Getty Images

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams meets then US president Bill Clinton in the in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on St Patrick’s Day, 2000. Photograph: William Vasta/AFP/Getty Images

 

Transcripts released by the Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas to The Irish Times present a fascinating insight into the role played by Bill Clinton in the Northern Ireland peace process.

As reported by Pat Leahy earlier this week, the documents reveal the extent of the then US president’s involvement in the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, providing an insight into his interactions with key players including Gerry Adams and David Trimble as well as then-taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his British counterpart Tony Blair.

In one call from Air Force One in June 1999, Bill Clinton tells Trimble: “You can wake me in the middle of the night” if needed, demonstrating how the president continued to be engaged right through the establishment of the Northern institutions.

With the 20th anniversary of the agreement approaching next year, the documents provide a timely reminder of the central role played by the US administration in the peace process.

Memorial Mass

Memories of that time were in the air this week in Washington as friends, family and members of Congress gathered for a memorial Mass for Martin McGuinness. As those who knew the former deputy first minister gathered just before 8am at St Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, the mood was reflective but optimistic as the warm early-morning sun shone down.

Many spoke about their memories of McGuinness. “You have to remember how radical it was at that time to bring this issue out of the margins and into the centre,” recalled Congressman Richard Neal. “The result was that, thanks to individuals like Martin, we saw a resolution of one of the longest-running disputes in the western world.”

But while memories of time past were strong, this week’s service also raised the question as to the relevance of Irish issues these days on Capitol Hill.

While the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations remain sacrosanct, thanks in no small part to Republicans such as Paul Ryan, Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pence, Northern Ireland has inevitably slipped down the agenda as the peace process has bedded in.

One issue gaining traction, however, is Brexit. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams raised the issue in his meetings with the Friends of Ireland group on Capitol Hill and the US state department this week. He highlighted the need for the Belfast Agreement to be protected, reiterating Sinn Féin’s call for the North to be assigned special status within the European Union.

As it happened, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire was also in Washington. He and Adams met on Monday evening and discussed the ongoing political impasse in Northern Ireland.

Brokenshire’s visit coincided with a high-profile trade mission by his government colleague Liam Fox, part of a concerted push by the UK for a bilateral trade agreement with the US.

Trade agreement

While Britain cannot strike a trade deal with a third country while still a member of the EU, both sides hailed positive talks, with Donald Trump promising a “big and exciting” trade agreement between the two countries.

Interestingly, Brokenshire stressed the benefits of a US trade deal for Northern Ireland both publicly and in private meetings this week in Washington.

Stressing the economic upside of Brexit, Brokenshire denied that US investment into Northern Ireland would be hampered by the UK’s exit from the EU – he argued that the region would in fact benefit. “One of the attractions for American companies investing in Northern Ireland is the access it gives them to the UK market,” he said at a reception organised by the Northern Ireland Bureau.

This presents an interesting challenge for the Government. Once Britain leaves the EU – bringing Northern Ireland with it – the region will be competing with Ireland for foreign direct investment. Northern Ireland may become more attractive should Britain sharply reduce its corporate tax rate, which seems highly likely.

Also in town this week was John Deasy, on his first US trip since his appointment as US special envoy with responsibility for immigration. Deasy, who worked in Congress in the 1990s, held meetings in Washington and New York, and highlighted the plight of the undocumented Irish.

But while the issue of undocumented Irish continues to be a priority for the Government, other challenges loom large for Ireland in the coming months and years. Though the decision by US Republicans to abandon a border adjustment tax this week was welcomed in Dublin, a full tax-reform package which may involve a cut in the US corporate tax rate and a move to encourage repatriation of profits is expected in the autumn. In the field of tax and trade, Ireland’s relationship with the US continues to face significant challenges.

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