The US and Northern Ireland: A diplomatic perspective

The UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies was the venue for a day-long conference, “The US and Northern Ireland: A Diplomatic Perspective”.

Three panel discussions were represented by high-level speakers, from the Irish and British diplomatic corps as well as by those who had direct access to key decision makers during the past 40 years of the peace process.

20121117 UCD - 01 Peter Jay-Sean Donlon
Mr Peter Jay and Dr Sean Donlon

The two key speakers of the first panel discussion, “Redefining Relationships”, included Peter Jay (British Ambassador to the USA, 1977-1979) and Sean Donlon (Irish Ambassador to the USA, 1978-1981). Although I missed their presentations (just too early for me to get down from Belfast in time), the following question and answer session brought out fellow well experienced colleagues in the audience.

The role of Tom Foley was reviewed. It was claimed that it was Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who was responsible for introducing Foley to Irish-America. While Foley would not consider brining Sinn Fein into the peace process — Foley was considered a “friend of Britain” after all — he was credited with persuading British Prime Minister John Major that the appointment of Senator George Mitchell as US Special Envoy was a good idea.

Both Mr Jay and Dr Donlon were asked if their personal relationship was ever strained by any events during their tenure. They replied no, that they always enjoyed cordial relations.

But Donlon, in response to a query from Professor Jennifer Todd (UCD), did describe how the infiltration by Sinn Fein of mainstream Irish-American organisations ended up with him barred from attending particular events. He also required regular security protection.

Donlon concluded that today, British-Irish relations are as strong as ever.

The second panel discussion, “Towards Good Friday”, addressed the peace process post the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires.

20121117 UCD - 02 Lord Kerr
Lord Kerr

Lord Kerr, who described himself as a Protestant brought up in Glasgow, was British Ambassador the USA (1995-1997). He said that for many years that he served as UK negotiator in Europe in the late 1980s/early 1990s, “nothing happened in meetings” with his Irish counterparts. But this changed after John Major became British Prime Minister: meetings stopped being pro forma, towards a means of normalising relations between the two states. Lord Kerr concluded that his work in Brussels was a good place to “warm up on the Irish Question”.

When he arrived in the USA in 1995, the main issue was whether President Clinton should visit Northern Ireland. Although Lord Kerr was initially in the minority section of British diplomatic opinion in favour, this ended up being the majority section.

“I think [Clinton’s visit] was phenomenally useful to the peace process. It demonstrated that normality was possible in Northern Ireland … the people of Belfast were cheering for themselves,” said Lord Kerr.

Lord Kerr also described how he “stole St Patrick’s Day”. This was done by inviting Unionist politicians to the UK Embassy in Washington, DC. There would also be Irish political representatives in attendance, and thus some amazement was expressed by the Irish-American community. As Lord Kerr explained, “we were taking a leaf out of the Irish in the conduct of our public diplomacy … we wanted to get the drawbridge down” in order to get its policy out.

20121117 UCD - 03 Kevin McNamara
Dr Kevin McNamara

Dr Kevin McNamara, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1987-1994, argued that until the Clinton Administration, there was no real difference between American and British policy in regards to Northern Ireland. The prevailing American attitude towards Northern Ireland was why should it intervene in what it saw as an internal UK matter. This, McNamara argued, explained President Nixon’s response to Bloody Sunday.

Furthermore, in his view, the USA respected the Republic of Ireland but didn’t deem it as a strategically important issue. Yet this changed due to: certain Irish-American actions; the Republic’s emphasis of its jurisdiction of 26 counties (versus 32 all-island counties), for reasons of encouraging inward investment; and the issue of the Irish diaspora in the USA.

McNamara then went into some detail about his experience with the MacBride Principles (for which he wrote a book). He argued repeatedly that the British Government “played the wrong hand” in this regard, expending political capital in attacking the legislation.

20121117 UCD - 04 Andrew Wilson
Professor Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson, Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, gave a detailed description of Unionist engagement in America in the 1980s: Operation USA.

Professor Wilson argued that throughout the 1970s, Unionists did nothing to counter Irish-American opinion. This changed at the end of the decade and early 1980s, for several reasons: the estimate that 80% of IRA weapons were coming from the USA; the American barring of entry to RUC personnel; and the hunger strikes. The fear was that all could lead to “swelled coffers” for NORAID and the IRA.

The response was Operation USA, which was a joint OUP-DUP initiative headed by David Burnside and Jim Allister, respectively. The common purpose was to influence American media to the Unionist perspective.

A brochure was produced, “Ulster: The Facts”, which included key points:

  • The Scots-Irish contribution to American history
  • The IRA as a Marxist oriented organisation (“Britain’s Cuba”)
  • Northern Ireland’s contributions towards WWII (versus the Republic’s neutrality)
  • Published images of dead victims of IRA violence

Yet Operation USA was doomed before it hit the ground. First, one of its committee members, Roy Bradford MP, was murdered by the IRA. Second, Ian Paisley was denied an entry visa. Worse, Reverend Paisley’s alternative tour in Canada was met with the attendance of Danny Morrison and others; this was not to be an uncontested public relations exercise. Third, an American spokesperson for Unionists, David McCadden, was undermined by his holocaust denial views.

For Wilson, this failure fed more bitterness to the Unionists and affirmed their collective siege mentality towards others.

20121117 UCD - 05 Jonathan Phillips
Sir Jonathan Phillips

Sir Jonathan Phillips, Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office from 2005-2010, began the third panel discussion, “Since Good Friday”, with a quotation from Senator George Mitchell’s description of the Agreement that day: “An uncertain, fragile peace.”

Sir Jonathan explored what should be the role now of the USA, post-Agreement. For a while, it used its levers of cajoling/persuading/flattering. The economic investment conference hosted in Northern Ireland was given as an example. Meanwhile, there was a concern of Britain and Ireland “shared despondency” and fading interest in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jonathan argued that America should remain as “critical friends”, particularly in regards to some matters outstanding:

  • The lack of an agreed reconciliation process
  • The need to address the needs of disadvantaged communities
  • The desire to promote integrated education

He argued that “the garden is not going to grow without external critical friendship.”

20121117 UCD - 06 Daithi OCeallaigh
Mr Daithi O’Ceallaigh

In contrast to the convivial relationship between Ambassadors Jay and Donlon, former Irish Ambassador to the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2007, Daithi O’Ceallaigh, described relations between the two states as “poisonous” from 1977-79. The primary issue at that time was the Republic’s refusal to extradite to the UK those accused of terrorist offences.

Mr O’Ceallaigh reviewed the work of former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, explaining achievements of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement:

  1. Redefine Irish nationalism (i.e. no change in constitutional status of Northern Ireland without their consent)
  2. Persuade Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland to attempt to resolve problems by engaging directly with the UK
  3. Engage with the UK in regards to addressing Northern Ireland affairs

The former ambassador described his own gestures “to put this past behind us”, which included giving a lecture at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, providing an Irish representative in military colour at the laying of a commemorative stone ceremony at Westminster Abbey, the 2002 St Patrick’s Day parade event in London, and the establishment of an Emerald Society in the London Metropolitan Police.

Mr O’Ceallaigh concluded with the remark that relations between Ireland and the UK have been “transformed for the benefit of both countries”.

20121117 UCD - 07 Paul Quinn
Mr Paul Quinn

Paul Quinn, who has served on the board of the American Ireland Fund since 1986, provided some personal reminiscences, including the relationship between Senator Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neill (Speaker of the US House of Representatives”, and John Hume. He described this relationship as the “glue” that developed on ongoing process, with success in pressuring President Jimmy Carter to take a more challenging position in regards to US foreign policy on Northern Ireland.

“Irish-Americans were involved in the peace process before there was a peace process,” said Mr Quinn.

Within his work for the Committee for a New Ireland (CNI), Mr Quinn explained that two main objectives were:

  1. Sell the John Hume approach to US politicians and decision makers
  2. Counter and block the efforts of NORAID

CNI outreach efforts included sending key people to Northern Ireland for firsthand learning and in turn, to become advocates. Mr Quinn noted that Nancy Soderberg was one of those who participated in this programme, and later became President Clinton’s key advisor on Northern Ireland policy.

In regards to the American Ireland Funds, Mr Quinn was particularly pleased with the role it played in persuading Senator George Mitchell to accept the role of US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland (1995-2001). Here, he recalled the late David Ervine telling him that Senator Mitchell was “the first man to treat me with dignity”.

Mr Quinn concluded with his memory of the opening ceremony of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, waiting with baited breath on what First Minister Ian Paisley would say next after citing how difficult it had been to get to this point, bearing scars: “That was then, this is now [sic].”


PETER JAY was the British Ambassador to the United States between 1977 and 1979. A graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, he worked as the economics editor for The Times newspaper prior to his appointment as Ambassador. He subsequently returned to journalism, working for TV-AM and the BBC.

SEAN DONLON worked in a variety of roles for the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1963 to 1987, during which he served as the Ambassador to the United States between 1978 and 1981. He also served as Secretary General of the Department and as a Special Advisor to Taoiseach John Bruton. He is the holder of honorary doctorates from the National University of Ireland and the University of Limerick, where he served as Chancellor from 2006-2011.

JOHN KERR, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, was the British Ambassador to the United States between 1995 and 1997. A graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford, he served in the British Diplomatic Service from 1966 to 2002, latterly as its Head, and in 2004 became an independent member of the House of Lords.

KEVIN McNAMARA was a Labour Party Member of Parliament in Hull between 1966 and 2005. From 1987 to 1994, he served as the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. A graduate of Hull University, he is author of “The MacBride Principles: Irish America Strikes Back”.

ANDREW WILSON is Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. He is author of many works, notably “Irish America and the Ulster Conflict, 1968-1995”.

JONATHAN PHILLIPS, the Warden of Keble College, Oxford, is a former British civil servant who became Political Director of the Northern Ireland Office in 2002 and was its Permanent Secretary from 2005-2010. He has a PhD in history from Cambridge University on an aspect of the campaign for Irish home rule.

DAITHI O’CEALLAIGH was the Ambassador of Ireland to the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2007 before becoming the Irish Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. He is the Director General of the Institute of International and European Affairs.

PAUL QUINN was the 2005 recipient of the Irish Peace and Culture Award from the American Ireland Fund, and has served on the board of the fund since 1986. A lawyer with over for decades of experience, he has provided policy and strategic advice to many political figures.

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