A bloody cheek . . . but not such a bad idea

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The Independent Online
MOST patriotic Britons share the same instinctive response to the notion that the President of the United States might send a 'peace envoy' to Northern Ireland. We think it is a bloody cheek. We think, what about the murder rate in Chicago? Eh? EH? We think, damned, interfering, IRA-succouring Bostonian ignoramuses - all those beery apologists for slaughter who manage to be slack-jawed and hard-faced at the same time . . .

In other words, we don't think. We spasm. On this, the patriotic instinct is wrong. The arrival of a senior US politician mandated to solve the issue, or bring peace, would be a farcical expression of navety and overoptimism, in a land that rewards neither. But a serious fact-finding mission, and a readiness in Washington to treat Northern Ireland as a place where effort and money could be reasonably expended, would be good news.

It is a fair bet that the Northern Irish envoy proposal will have been far down yesterday's agenda for both President Clinton and John Major. After some intensive diplomatic shuffling around Washington, the possibility of a big initiative seems to have been downgraded to a fact-finding exercise.

As Ray Seitz, the US ambassador, said in Belfast earlier this month: 'President Clinton may indeed consider appointing an emissary or representative, an individual sensitive to the complexities and nuance of politics in the province, someone who can gather the facts as they stand and report the situation directly to him and to the Congress.' In reply, as it were, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said a couple of days later that any such representative 'will return to the United States a happier person and a very much better-informed person'. Yes, Reader, they've stitched it up.

And this compromise, maintaining face on both sides, barely deserves to be ranked alongside such pressing issues as trade disputes or Bosnia. Indeed, the original US proposal may have been watered down too far. Northern Ireland could well do with some Atlantic optimism and investment. Vigorous US support for the peace process, expressed locally, would help to isolate the warlords of the ghettos; would encourage Dublin to make the bold constitutional changes that it needs to make; and would help to ensure that British politicians returned yet again to the quagmire politics of Ulster.

Recently the historian Oliver MacDonagh wrote: 'From being serious but never desperate, the Ulster question had, apparently, been reclassified in London as desperate, but never serious.' Bitter words, but with a taste of truth. The apparent endlessness of the Northern Irish struggle has - inevitably - pushed it off the main agenda at Westminster.

A common response there is that 'the troubles' are a tribal affair which can never be resolved. There is something, presumably, in the blood or the water. This is where, if we are honest, fatalism and weariness collapse into racism. And it feeds the desire of ordinary British voters to 'get out', as if Belfast were Saigon, and we could topple our historic involvement off the departing ships, as easily as the United States did from its helicopters.

Yet the fighting has not been going on for so very long. And the involvement of English and Scottish politicians in the Northern Irish tragedy is a fact of history. Or did the long years of indifference to the Stormont government's behaviour, or Bloody Sunday, or the British cave-in to the Ulster workers' strike, have nothing to do with it at all?

The most honest of the politicians - of whom Sir Paddy and his predecessor, Peter Brooke, are two - have not succumbed to fatalism, nor tried to evade their responsibility. But exhaustion and disgust in the British body politic is common and bodes ill for any further leaps of imagination or diplomatic risk-taking.

This is the first reason for welcoming American interest. The time is ripe for a transfusion of energy and enthusiasm: it was good to see Mr Seitz recounting worldwide ethnic conflicts to Belfast businessmen before flipping the common British response on its head: 'Many of these conflicts may be so primordial that they lie beyond the reach of rational resolution. Patently this is not the case in Northern Ireland. There is a genuine political process in place here. A little boldness can overcome a lot of suspicion.'

I call those noble words. The British-Irish process needs a further push, and leading British politicians have endured too many disappointments to be eager. Deeper interest by Washington carries no threat, not unless our politicians secretly believe they have been following indefensible policies all along. Noraid support for republican terrorism has been dropping off for some time. The level of sophistication about Northern Ireland is higher now in the United States than for a long time. And if peace does come, it can be bedded down only with jobs and investment from abroad. History suggests a lot of that investment would come from America.

British diplomacy has been limited, on this issue, to trying to minimise, downplay and undermine any initiative from Washington. There has been a near-universal consensus among the media and at Westminster that the nosey Yanks should keep out. The more I ponder this, the more I think it has been a great mistake. We should have seized the proposal with both hands, and worked hard to involve the United States more, not less, deeply. It has been our national pride and our sensitivity to the shame of Northern Ireland that held us back - our spasm, not our clearest thinking. Of course, it was a bloody cheek. But not such a bad idea.