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02.06.10

Ireland's Big Breakthrough

The agreement to stabilize the Catholic-Protestant government in Northern Ireland will allow the province, finally, to police itself. It also ends America’s role as a peace broker in the region.

British and Irish leaders announced on Friday, with much fanfare, that an accord had been reached to allow Northern Ireland to take over its own law-and-order powers from Britain. The agreement, which should take effect in April, saves the Catholic-Protestant government in Belfast.

Though the agreement can plausibly be called a breakthrough, its historic significance is as much about the roles of America and Britain as diplomatic brokers as it is about the incremental progress in stabilizing Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration.

It is, in many respects, the end of an era in great-powers diplomacy.

“I fear that many people outside of Northern Ireland often serve as enablers, whether we intend to or not.”

Bill Clinton, who has been all but canonized in Ireland for his role in bringing the 30-year conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ to an end, once said of the bickering parties, “They are like a couple of drunks walking out of a bar for the last time. When they reach the swing doors, they turn right around and go back in and say, ‘I just can’t quite get there.’”

Clinton made those comments more than a decade ago, and he soon had to apologize for them. Mocking remarks about a fondness for booze are not looked kindly upon by either sensitive Irish-American activists or abstemious Northern Irish Protestants.

Even so, his words have only resonated more deeply over time, as a succession of self-inflicted crises have arisen in Northern Ireland. Every time, the squabbling parties in Belfast have turned to governments in Washington, London and Dublin for rescue.

Supporters of high-level international engagement argue that the U.S., in particular, has proven to be a valuable guarantor of the peace process. That may have been true in the early days, when the process was struggling for traction.

But the problem with having a permanent guarantor is that it ends up providing a license to act irresponsibly, since someone else can always be counted upon to clean up your mess.

This is an especially important concept to remember in the wake of the latest supposedly historic accord, which was reached between the Irish Republicans of Sinn Fein and the pro-British loyalists of the Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.).

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Friday's deal meant “we are closing the last chapter of a long and troubled story.” If that proves true, it will not be before time. After all, the rigid dogmas that once underpinned the conflict have long since been binned.

The Irish Republican movement, comprised of the guerrilla Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) and Sinn Fein, used to be defined by its supposedly unquenchable determination to overthrow the Northern Irish entity by force of arms, subsuming it into an all-Ireland state.

These days, Sinn Fein still gives voice to a desire for a united Ireland, but it came to a de facto acceptance that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would not change except by the will of its people 12 years ago, when it signed the Good Friday Agreement. The I.R.A., meanwhile, put itself out of meaningful existence five years ago with an order to its members to restrict themselves to “exclusively peaceful means”.

The Democratic Unionists have also abandoned plenty of their old shibboleths. The party’s founder and figurehead, the Reverend Ian Paisley, for years railed against Irish Republican perfidy, often in Biblical terms. There could be no negotiations with the I.R.A., much less any talk of a deal with them, he said.

Lo and behold, in 2007 Paisley assumed the co-leadership of a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, an acknowledged former I.R.A. commander. The two men got along with such incongruous jollity that they soon earned the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers.”

So why did the two parties find themselves cooped up in a castle near Belfast for most of the past two weeks, until the most recent agreement was signed? And why were the prime ministers of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland summoned to their sides?

Essentially because McGuinness and the man who replaced Paisley as D.U.P. leader, Peter Robinson, held differing interpretations of yet another agreement that had been signed in 2006.

Given this stuttering progress, it is little wonder that some observers on this side of the Atlantic feel it is time for Northern Ireland to stand on its own feet.

Trina Vargo is the founder of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance and a former foreign policy adviser to the late Senator Edward Kennedy. She has also worked as an adviser on Irish issues for every Democratic nominee for president since Michael Dukakis, including Barack Obama.

“I fear that many people outside of Northern Ireland often serve as enablers, whether we intend to or not,” Vargo said. “There is always a ‘new crisis’ and each one of them seems to require international attention. As someone who cares deeply about the relationship, even I have to honestly say that my own government has more pressing matters to deal with, as does the Taoiseach [Irish prime minister] as does Prime Minister Brown.”

American engagement in the early stages of Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s was in one sense the product of a perfect storm.

The sitting president, BIll Clinton, had been interested in Northern Ireland since he had watched the Troubles erupt while a student at Oxford. In foreign-policy terms, a window of opportunity for places like Northern Ireland to receive unprecedented American attention had opened with the end of the Cold War and had not yet been slammed shut by the Sept. 11 attacks. And the Irish Republican movement was still engaged in armed struggle but looking to find a way out of that dead-end.

The picture now could hardly be more different. President Obama appears to feel no particular connection to Ireland. His administration faces enormous challenges in the likes of Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia and North Korea. From all perspectives, it makes little sense to expend energy trying to resolve increasingly esoteric arguments in a statelet that comprises six counties and has a total population approximately the same as that of Manhattan.

Supporters of continued international engagement in Northern Ireland issue dire warnings about the threat still posed by hardliners on both sides.

There is indeed a threat, but it is the Northern Irish parties themselves who are in the best position to defang it. If they proved devolution worked, delivering real improvements to the lives of Northern Ireland’s people, they would neutralize the outliers’ appeal at a stroke.

As it is, their intransigence and hair-splitting on issues like policing and sectarian parades has left the bread-and-butter issues of Northern Ireland—jobs, health care, education—in dire need of attention.

Trina Vargo recalls a conversation in which one Northern Irish politician insisted that the U.S. and other governments needed to “take the training wheels off.”

There are a number of signs that the White House gets the message. Although the U.S. has an economic envoy to Northern Ireland, no special political envoy has been appointed by Obama, as had been the case in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knocked down a bizarre story that she would appoint herself to that role last summer. And, despite rumors that swirled of an imminent Clinton appearance late last month, while she was on a trip to London and the talks remained deadlocked, no such mission materialized.

Well-intentioned people on both sides of the Atlantic might still want to offer a helping hand. But the danger in such an approach is that it retards, rather than hastens, the day when Northern Ireland’s politicians can walk unaided.

Niall Stanage is a New York-based, Irish-born journalist and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign (Liberties Press, Dublin).