US fuels doubt on Ulster job

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The White House was forced this weekend to quash speculation that the President was poised to appoint the House Speaker, Tom Foley, as special envoy to Northern Ireland. It none the less stopped short of dismissing the notion altogether.

In the Speaker's office, there was an almost disbelieving reaction to British reports suggesting not only that the President had selected him for the job but that he would make his choice public during an official visit to Washington on Wednesday by John Major.

'For the weeks and months ahead there will be no more important a place for the Speaker to be than in Congress,' Mr Foley's spokesman insisted, underlining the prime importance of ushering through Bill Clinton's economic proposals.

'I am not aware of any White House announcement, nor am I aware that there have been any discussions with regard to an


But leaving the door open for some such development, a spokeswoman for the President noted simply yesterday that 'President Clinton has expressed a willingness to appoint a special envoy'. Without elaborating, she added that 'no decision has been made right now'.

In rumours and counter-rumours - possibly being washed up by intensive and highly secret diplomatic manoeuvrings ahead of the Prime Minister's visit to Washington - Irish sources well connected with the Speaker's office dismissed the involvement of Mr Foley as most unlikely, although whispers from the State Department suggested that his name was in the frame.

What does seem probable is that in the end any envoy will be given no greater task than that of fact-finder. This, certainly, would be the hope of the British government. In the words of a spokesman yesterday: 'If they (the Americans) feel they need more information and decide on a fact- finding mission, we will have no difficulty with that.'

That being the case, Mr Foley's involvement may not seem so improbable. He was part of a congressional mission to Northern Ireland in September 1991, when he meet Ian Paisley and the SDLP leader, John Hume.

Were Mr Foley to be appointed, any visits he might pay would probably not take place until the summer, perhaps in August, by which time the US Congress will be in recess and - more importantly - the Anglo-Irish talks may have been put back on the tracks. But that would not prevent Mr Clinton from making the appointment public earlier, perhaps this week or on St Patrick's Day (17 March), when US presidents traditionally speak on Ireland.

The stir caused by the Foley rumours, meanwhile, may alert Mr Clinton to the sensitivity of the issue and of its inherent dangers for Anglo-American relations. It has also guaranteed that Northern Ireland will be high on the agenda in his talks with Mr Major. In an effort to clear up the confusion, the two leaders may issue a joint statement making clear that any US initiative would not conflict with the Anglo-Irish peace effort.

Mr Major, as it happens, is also expected to follow normal protocol and visit Mr Foley, in his capacity as Speaker.

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