It is easy to understand the distress and alarm felt in Protestant circles, however. Mr Clinton's commitment, made during his election campaign, was not a disinterested attempt to place the United States at the service of those seeking a resolution to the problems of Northern Ireland. It was an opportunistic attempt to consolidate the Irish-American vote. This meant bidding for the support of millions of Americans of Irish- Catholic descent, the great majority of whom instinctively support the nationalist cause. A significant number feel an ill-informed, romantic sympathy for the IRA as they believe the organisation to have been 75 or more years ago.
Last year, the then Governor of Arkansas promised to send a 'peace envoy' with mediating powers to Northern Ireland. The Democratic hopeful also insisted that the British government must provide 'more effective safeguards against the wanton use of lethal force and against further collusion between the security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups'. He said Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, should be allowed into the United States on propaganda tours and that state governors should force US companies operating in Northern Ireland to adopt anti- discrimination practices which the British government regards as harmful.
Mr Clinton could have abandoned his Northern Ireland initiative once the Irish- American vote was safely harvested. He decided not to do so. The President has, however, watered down his pledges. All that remains is a determination to send somebody to do something. Thus, the activist peace envoy is now referred to merely as a fact-finder, pledged to listen to lawful groups and to report to the White House.
In many ways Mr Foley would be an ideal man for this redefined job, not withstanding his Irish-Catholic background and his undoubted sympathy for the constitutional nationalist cause. Unlike many Irish-American politicians, the Speaker has been unequivocal in his condemnation of terrorism and of the IRA. His integrity, consistency and informed affection for this country are beyond dispute. Were he to return from a period in Northern Ireland to report (as he almost certainly would) that the IRA's campaign of terror was not merely evil but damaging, he would be heard with respect by those who advocate a united Ireland.
When John Major meets Mr Clinton this week, he can be expected to argue that it would be appropriate to appoint a career foreign servant rather than a politician. Whether or not the Prime Minister's appeal is heeded, an appointment will eventually be made. Unionists should consider a more relaxed and sophisticated response than they demonstrated at the weekend. To vilify or boycott the presidential emissary would confirm the inaccurate but commonly held view in parts of the United States that Northern Ireland's problems are the result of the uncompromising intransigence of Unionist politicians.Reuse content