The Decision to Get Involved
“I first got involved in the Irish issue because of the politics of New York, but it became one of the great passions of my presidency.” President Clinton, My Life (401)
As a Presidential Candidate, Governor Bill Clinton first announced his intention to help promote peace in Northern Ireland at a 1992 Irish-American Democratic Candidates Forum. Clinton promised that, if elected, he would appoint a special envoy to assist the British and Irish governments’ stalled efforts to end the “Troubles”: a complex ethno-nationalist conflict between Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic communities marked by economic stagnation, human rights abuses, and terrorism. The “Troubles” modern origins lay in the Catholic civil rights movement of the late 1960s, but its roots are long, deep, and centuries old.
In a widely circulated follow-up letter to prominent Irish-American Congressman Bruce Morrison, Governor Clinton reaffirmed his commitment to appointing a special envoy for Northern Ireland.
The Kennedy Family
After his election, President Clinton also received the support of the Kennedy family for his efforts on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland. Senator Edward Kennedy provided advice and encouraged the White House to hire Nancy Soderberg, his staff expert on Northern Ireland. Soderberg was subsequently placed on the National Security Council (NSC) and became a key adviser throughout the peace process. Her office files are an essential archival resource. On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1993, Clinton also appointed Jean Kennedy Smith as Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, where she became an active player during behind-the-scenes negotiations.
For more information on President Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Ireland, see the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum’s online exhibit, “A Journey Home: John F. Kennedy in Ireland.”
Political and Religious Divisions
Northern Ireland is the smallest province of the United Kingdom, both in size and population: less than two million people live there. In 1992, approximately 55% of residents were Protestant and 45% Catholic. “Ulster” is the ancient name for most of the counties making up this region.
At the time of President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, there were five major political parties in Northern Ireland: the long dominant Protestant-majority Ulster Unionist Party; the militantly Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party led by the charismatic Rev. Ian Paisley; the non-sectarian centrist Alliance Party; the Catholic-majority Social Democratic & Labor Party cofounded by John Hume; and Sinn Féin, the party associated with the Irish Republican Army.
Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams
While leaders from each party made important contributions to the peace process, one, often polarizing, figure performed an outsized role: Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. Born in West Belfast in 1948, Mr. Adams was elected the party’s leader in 1983 after the hunger strike protests by jailed members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, otherwise known as the IRA. In this capacity, Adams became the controversial face of Irish Republicanism. Although Adams has always vehemently denied that he served in the command structure of the IRA, Sinn Féin under his leadership often defended IRA terrorism as “armed struggle.” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s antipathy to Adams was such that, in 1988, she had his voice banned from all British news broadcasts. The ban was still in force when President Clinton came into office. [More information concerning the difference between the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA]
Yet bringing Gerry Adams ‘in from the cold’ became extremely important to the Clinton Administration’s strategy for achieving peace in Northern Ireland. To this end, two questions dominated the Clinton Administration’s early efforts to end the "Troubles”: Would it kickstart the peace process to grant Mr. Adams a visa to enter the United States? Could the White House and sympathetic Irish-American leaders persuade Adams to use his position to create the conditions for a ceasefire and multiparty negotiations?
After a year of publicly rejecting Mr. Adams' visa requests, and against the strong objections of both the British government and the U.S. State Department, the President finally decided to let Adams visit the United States. It would be the first of several trips. As President Clinton explained in his autobiography:
“[The visa] would boost Adams’s leverage within Sinn Féin and the IRA, while increasing American influence with him. That was important because unless the IRA renounced violence and Sinn Féin became a part of the peace process, the Irish problem could not be solved.” (580)
When Mr. Adams spoke at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel a few days later, he informed a hall packed with New York City’s Irish-American political leaders that, under the right conditions, Sinn Féin was prepared to support a ceasefire in Northern Ireland.
As the President concluded in his autobiography:
“The visa decision had worked. It was the beginning of my deep engagement in the long, emotional, complicated search for peace in Northern Ireland.” (581)
A key partner early in the Northern Ireland peace process, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, seen in the photograph above presenting President Clinton with a vase of shamrocks during the White House’s annual St. Patrick’s Day ceremony. In the photographs below, President Clinton accepts the annual bowl of shamrocks from Mr. Reynolds’ successor, John Bruton. To the right, President Clinton tours the Gateway 2000 computer factory with Bertie Ahern, who became the Irish prime minister in 1997. All three Taoisigh were vital to securing the Good Friday Agreement.