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13 October 2014

Stern letter from America a clarion call to our leaders

President Obama

Last week, I was writing about how Westminster is losing patience with the unreasonableness and sense of entitlement of Northern Irish politicians. This week, it is Washington that is signalling its irritation and boredom.

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Americans are optimistic, "can-do" people, so when they sound pessimistic things are serious. "This place is fixable," is the mantra I remember from one of the able and committed US diplomats I was friendly with over the years.

President Bill Clinton's special envoy, George Mitchell, never ceased to believe that, ultimately, politics would triumph over violence and his doggedess achieved much, but he was scarred by the hell of negotiating from 1995-2001 with intransigent, unreasonable people.

Mitchell Reiss, President Bush's envoy from 2003-7, was another outstanding performer, who got results. As he told the BBC later, he had "some pretty violent disagreements" with Tony Blair and his team, whose default position was to give Sinn Fein whatever they wanted in the hope they might eventually deign to deliver on their side of the Agreement.

It was Dr Reiss's threats and sanctions that made Sinn Fein end their nine years of procrastination and deliver decommissioning, support for the PSNI and an end to criminality and make power-sharing with the DUP a reality. However, that didn't make Stormont politicians grow up and take responsibility.

Dr Reiss's predecessor, Richard Haass, had been a push-over, which is why I expected little when he was asked by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to look at flags, symbols and other identity issues last year.

George Mitchell commented that Dr Haass would make every effort to resolve the issues, but added wearily that "once one difficulty is solved, others come along".

In the event, nothing was resolved. Not for the first time, Sinn Fein were too greedy in negotiation and only nationalists liked Haass's report. He hasn't been back since.

Did anyone take any notice of the Irish Times article by Nancy Soderberg – once a Clinton adviser on Northern Ireland and still a Washington mover and shaker – when she accused Northern Ireland politicians of an "abysmal abdication of leadership" and of being "far too stuck in the past, making progress vulnerable and even reversible"?

Angry that six months of work by Dr Haass and his colleague, Dr Meghan O'Sullivan, achieved nothing and aware that there are to be new talks and that Gerry Adams is demanding serious US involvement, 13 former players have written an irritated letter to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. In their own words, they were people who "worked, on many levels, to support the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the challenging steps of implementation thereafter".

They include former Congressmen like James T Walsh (ex-chairman of Congressional Friends of Ireland) and Bruce A Morrison (ex-chairman, Ad Hoc Congressional Committee on Irish Affairs), as well as diplomats like Reiss and his successor Paula J Dobriansky, who was special envoy from 2007-2009.

Ticked-off by foot-dragging and inflexibility, they reminded their addressees that, in the spring, the annual Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report had been worried that "a culture of endless negotiations has become embedded and, without a vision of a shared society to sustain it, the peace process has lost its power to inspire".

They added that "a stalemate without violence is still a stalemate. And children growing up without a vision of a shared, cross-community future can too easily learn the ways of conflict again".

They quoted Dr Haass's rueful remark that he had learned "that those who believe that they can ensure that each and every element of this agreement is to their liking – and still secure five-party consensuses – are unrealistic in the extreme".

Speaking "as Americans who have invested much time, energy and passion into this process, we urge the leadership of Northern Ireland to go back to the table and hammer out a compromise".

Do Messrs Robinson and McGuinness and their followers grasp that hitherto-sympathetic Americans are utterly fed-up?

Unlike the days of Bill Clinton, there's no appealing to President Barack Obama, whose lack of interest in Ireland was evident in his failure to fill the post of ambassador for 21 months.

Northern Ireland can't afford to lose any more friends.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards