The US Presidential Elections: Ulster back on agenda if Clinton wins: A new occupant in the White House could put Anglo-US ties under some strain, Leonard Doyle writes from New York

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The Independent Online
A CLINTON administration would be expected to bring changes in the long-standing US policy of steering clear of Northern Ireland's troubled politics, adding a new element of strain and uncertainty in relations between Washington and London.

Governor Bill Clinton, the Democrat candidate, has said that if elected President he would appoint a peace envoy for Northern Ireland, even suggesting that the mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, would make a good candidate for the job. Mr Clinton's intrusion into Northern Irish politics has already drawn a sharp retort from Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and has dismayed the Government.

'We do not need a peace envoy, thank you very much,' Sir Patrick said. 'What we need is a settlement as a result of the talks process.'

Undaunted, the Clinton campaign is expected to release a statement on Northern Ireland in the coming days, reiterating remarks made in the heat of the New York primary. His comments stunned British and Irish diplomats who monitor the vocal Irish- American lobby. Mr Clinton's feelings about Northern Ireland are difficult to gauge, but several supporters of Irish republicanism are active in his campaign. Mr Clinton's support for these controversial policies has given the poorly organised radical Irish lobby in the US a shot in the arm.

With Sinn Fein's encouragement, its US supporters have become involved in political activism and lobbying efforts rather than raising money for the IRA.

Not since President Jimmy Carter, under pressure from Irish-Americans, blocked the sale of 3,000 pistols and 500 rifles to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1979, despite the protests of Margaret Thatcher, will relations have been so strained over Northern Ireland should Mr Clinton live up to even some of his campaign promises. He said of US policy on Northern Ireland some months ago: 'We've been a little too reluctant to relay our feelings in a positive way because of two reasons: our long-standing relationship with Great Britain and all the perception that this (conflict in Northern Ireland) is a very thorny problem.'

Last April Mr Clinton went on the record to say that as President he would allow Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, a visa to come to the US on propaganda tours, something London has vehemently resisted for years. He also said at the time that he would take up human rights issues in Northern Ireland, focusing on 'abuses perpetrated by the security forces as well as other forces'.

These and other controversial announcements were made at a candidates' debate, which he decided to attend only at the last minute. The mere fact that Mr Clinton set out his views so forcefully on Northern Ireland has been seen as a great coup by the activists who organised the event, where he took questions from, among others, Martin Galvin, one of the IRA's most visible supporters in North America.

Mr Clinton also said at the time that as President he would encourage all state governors to adopt the MacBride Principles, which aim to force the subsidiaries of US companies operating in Northern Ireland to adopt US- style anti-discrimination rules between Catholics and Protestants. London is adamantly opposed to the rules and has spent more than pounds 5m in fees to professional lobbyists and public-relations companies in an effort to halt the spread of the code but so far they have been adopted by 24 state and city legislatures in the nation.

'I like the principles very much. I think they're a good thing, and if I were President I would ask all state governors to take a look at adopting them,' Mr Clinton said last April.

Mr Clinton rejected Britain's argument that the MacBride Principles discourage US investment. 'There's always that argument with this kind of thing, but I don't buy it. I see the MacBride Principles as a way of helping investment, because it would help stabilise the troubles in Northern Ireland.'

Campaign promises such as these tend to be talked about and written up by Irish-Americans as if they are already fact, but many say it is unlikely that Mr Clinton will ever follow up if elected.

A wide victory margin will allow Mr Clinton to ignore special- interest groups - like the Irish - unless their demands fit in with broader US policy objectives.

Few expect a Clinton administration to act in a way that would deeply anger Britain, given the importance of the strategic relationship between them.

One observer of the Irish- American political scene said: 'If he's elected, all his promises to interest groups will get snowed under. When he is reminded of his promises, the likelihood is that the State Department will ensure that they never become policy.'