Bush Weighs In on Northern Ireland

Special to The Times

Northern Ireland politics, with its fussy codes and tribal grievances, is just the sort of dizzying foreign entanglement George Bush vowed to steer away from when he became president. To the Bush White House, the province’s Good Friday peace agreement was Bill Clinton’s signature issue, perfectly suited to a politician happiest conducting diplomacy by group hug.

Yet there was Bush, standing in an English government house in a pretty Northern Irish village, meeting local political leaders and urging “all the communities of Northern Ireland to seize this opportunity for peace.”

He then signed a declaration that warned them “there can be no place in Northern Ireland for paramilitary activity and capability,” adding the end to violence must be “complete and irrevocable.”


With that, Bush nailed his presidential colors to the Northern Ireland issue for the first time. He had come to Hillsborough Castle, as the manor house 12 miles outside Belfast is known, to talk about Iraq with his staunchest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But Blair is also involved in a high-wire effort to revive the Good Friday agreement, which turns five years old today amid little celebration. Bush’s meeting with local politicians was intended to add oxygen to that effort.

While the accord between Protestant and Catholic groups has defused the worst of the sectarian brutality that killed 3,300 people in 30 years, the numerous paramilitary groups it spawned still have a pulse in the province. That continuing low-level violence has soured many people, especially Protestants who want to keep their union with Britain and who complain that political concessions have not taken the gun out of politics.

Unionists, as they are known, are demanding the Irish Republican Army formally declare the war with Britain over and begin destroying its hidden arsenal. If it refuses, Unionists say they won’t go back into a local power-sharing government with the mostly Catholic Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm, which wants Northern Ireland to unite with the Irish Republic to the south.

That is the tangle Blair is trying to sort out. And it is why Blair asked Bush to weigh in with an appeal for parties to make the concessions necessary to drag themselves across the finish line to a lasting peace.

Bush complied, even if he was not about to venture much beyond generalities.

At one point, he referred to the people who live in the province as “Northern Irelanders,” a source of amusement to many in a province where there is no one acceptable name for all. And the White House seemed confused about the geography, handing out security passes that identified Belfast as part of Ireland.

More seriously, Bush encountered resentment from local politicians, who had not been consulted about the visit and who universally declared the timing awful -- though none for the same reasons, of course.


Some balked at meeting Bush because of their opposition to the war in Iraq, which is unpopular here. Feelings are especially intense in the Catholic community, where the graffiti-painted murals of the Catholic Falls Road in Belfast now include Celtic rebel exhortations urging Iraq to victory.

Catholic politicians complained they were being dragooned into appearing alongside Bush, abusing Northern Ireland’s fragile peace to give the president peace credentials in wartime.

“We had a feeling we were being used as a PR stunt to show he was a man of peace,” said Brid Rodgers, deputy leader of the mostly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. “It was insensitive to come here now given the way people feel about this war.”

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams chafed at the invitation as well. But his public complaints about the Iraqi war may have been matched by private worries that meeting Bush at this sensitive time in negotiations with Blair could leave an impression any IRA concessions to come were coerced by presidential pressure.

There is more support for the war in the Protestant community, which has a British identity and has rallied somewhat to the side of the troops. David Trimble, the main Unionist leader, congratulated Bush on a war well-fought.

But Trimble expressed anger at Adams’ antiwar views, complaining that the IRA were “people who were quite happy to kill for an ignoble cause, who were prepared to pursue a war to undermine democracy.” Gerry Kelly, a senior Sinn Fein politician and convicted IRA terrorist, countered that his party’s antiwar position was not taken “on the basis of being pacifists.”

Bush could hardly be expected to contend with such complex local rivalries.

Since coming to office, Bush has left Northern Ireland issues in the hands of the State Department’s respected envoy Richard Haass. Clinton, on the other hand, jumped personally into the process during a more tumultuous phase, when the peace accord was being hammered out and relations were raw between people who had only just stopped trying to kill one another.

“All Bush wanted to do this week was put a little wind in our sails, as he said,” noted David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the democratic face of one Protestant paramilitary group. Ervine was among those who met the president for half an hour in private Wednesday. “No one was expecting him to know details the way Clinton did.”

Others who met Bush agreed. But there was also a barely submerged longing for Clinton, for the days when the Good Friday agreement was young, and presidential visits were celebrated amid an exuberant crush in downtown Belfast rather than vault-like security in a government retreat.

Monica McWilliams, an elected member from the Women’s Coalition who was also at Hillsborough Wednesday, says she misses Clinton’s enthusiasm. A sign of the changing ways under Bush are the St. Patrick’s Day parties at the White House, she says. Clinton began the tradition of inviting all Northern Ireland leaders to the White House and, though Bush has done the same every year, he moved the event from evening to mornings.

“Oh, it was a real party back then, with singing and dancing until after midnight,” McWilliams recalls. “Clinton would be singing, too, and when we’d leave the staff would say to us, ‘well, thank God that’s over for another year.’

“Now,” she says, “we’re in and out of the White House like lightning.”