The nibbles were of commendably high quality and the bar was certainly free at the headquarters of Mutual of America on Park Avenue, Midtown Manhattan, on Monday evening, as a cross-section of Irish-American grandees gathered for an event hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
The event was to honour (as the Americans never tire of saying) Hillary Clinton with an award and the keynote speaker was Tánaiste Micheál Martin, in town as part of the annual St Patrick’s Day invasion.
The event, one of dozens in New York, Boston, Washington and beyond this week, was an example of the sort of cocktail-hour politics that is a fixture of political life in the US and at which Irish-American and Irish politicians have become so accomplished. Contacts are made, alliances suggested, plans formulated and common interests identified over the trays of finger food and a glass or two of whatever you’re having yourself.
The US doesn’t have all that many clear-cut foreign policy successes in recent decades, one speaker noted. But it does have the Northern Ireland peace process
It’s not my purpose here to rehash the arguments in favour of maintaining the soft power that Ireland can wield through the St Patrick’s Day exodus, though diverse political figures – Naomi Long, Colm Eastwood, the Mayor of Laois – were hard at it as the lights began to twinkle in the Manhattan dusk outside. Suffice to say that the soft power brings hard benefits. Instead, there are two things that strike me this week in the US.
The first is that the celebrations in the US of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement underline the extent to which the agreement is viewed here as very much a US foreign policy success. The sense of ownership that the US Government and the elite foreign policy establishment – the whole ecosystem of think tanks, universities and journals which supplies the US government with personnel and ideas – all have of the agreement and the peace settlement is unmistakable. It was put explicitly in these terms to Micheál Martin during a meeting with the editorial board of The New York Times on Tuesday, I’m told. The US doesn’t have all that many clear-cut foreign policy successes in recent decades, one speaker noted. But it does have the Northern Ireland peace process.
It’s an interesting contrast with the EU, which has also latterly developed a sense of joint ownership – thanks largely to energetic efforts by Irish diplomats during the post-Brexit period – of the peace process. This has worked very well in Ireland’s interests, but it rests on shaky historical foundations: the EU was an important post-facto supporter of the peace settlement, not a player in its negotiation.
The United States, however, was indispensable in the genesis, negotiation, consolidation and maintenance of the peace process and its agreements. Gathered on the 35th floor of the Mutual building on Monday evening, speakers and guests recalled the contribution of Bill Flynn, the Irish American boss of the firm who found the time between managing billions of dollars of clients’ funds to make telling interventions during the early days of the process.
It’s easy to look back now and assume that the ending of violence and the construction of a workable politics in Northern Ireland was inevitable. But it wasn’t. The whole thing could have collapsed at any point, with direct political consequences for those involved. The moves they made and the risks they took required courage. One of Flynn’s most important contributions was helping persuade Bill Clinton to grant a visa to Gerry Adams to visit the US in 1994 , to enable him to explain and seek support for the Republican peace strategy from some of the IRA’s American godfathers.
[ How Britain tried to stop Gerry Adams getting US visa ]
Where Clinton put his mouth, corporate America put its money. It was said of Flynn that he “brought the Irish peace process out of the bar room and into the boardroom”. And the boardrooms bought into it. Millions of dollars in investment flowed into the North, generating a “peace dividend” that did as much as anything to bed in the new political dispensation.
Having spent lots of time speaking to politicians, corporates and the people who inhabit the space between them this week, it seems to me – this is the second thing – that a similar effort is currently in the works. The message that the North can look forward to a “decade of investment” if political stability returns is being made publicly and – rather more forcefully, one imagines – privately. The boardrooms of corporate America are gearing up again. The three governments – once again in lockstep, at least on this issue – are pressing the point home. If the institutions are revived and function effectively and sensibly, then there will be tangible economic benefits for Northern Ireland and its people. But to unlock this, the DUP needs to accept the Windsor Framework .
To a certain type of unionist ear, of course, the promises of investment all sound rather like 30 pieces of silver. And perhaps it is somewhat unsubtle. But simple messages have a virtue, too. Outside Philadelphia, I notice two billboards for personal injury lawyers, not unusual in this litigation-mad society. One proclaims: “The Power of Justice” with a stentorian-looking chap in a sober suit. The other features a man holding up a bag with a dollar sign on it. “TopDog Law,” it says, “gets you top dollar”. I’m willing to bet who gets more business.
The question that Jeffrey Donaldson has to answer is not just whether to accept the deal; it’s what is his alternative? Does he really want to head down a political cul-de-sac? Unionist voters might like the sound of the power of justice. But do they really want to turn down top dollar?