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New book reveals unsung American peacemaker in Ireland Bruce Morrison

Penn Rhodeen's book Peacerunner carries the grand tag "the true story of how an ex-Congressman helped end centuries of war in Ireland". David Roy spoke to the US writer about why Bruce Morrison deserves just as much recognition as Bill Clinton and George Mitchell when it comes to America's contribution to our peace process

US President Bill Clinton pictured in Derry with MP John Hume during his visit to the north in December 1995

FORMER US President Bill Clinton considers his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process to be his top foreign policy achievement.

However, while the work of President Clinton – who made history in December 1995 as the first sitting US head of state to visit the north – and his Good Friday Agreement-wrangling envoy Senator George Mitchell towards ending the Troubles has been well documented, a third largely unsung American also helped pave the road to peace in the north.

Indeed, as revealed in American writer Penn Rhodeen's new book Peacerunner, it's doubtful that Northern Ireland would have been on President Clinton's political radar at all were it not for his Yale Law School classmate Bruce Morrison.

Despite his surname, Long Island-born Morrison (71) has no Irish blood-ties (his adoptive father was of Scots-Irish descent).

Elected to Congress as a Representative for Connecticut in 1982, this Democrat took an interest in US/Irish affairs as a way of connecting with his Irish-American constituents, becoming active in the Noraid-affiliated (and thus controversial) Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs.

Morrison's name is actually already part of the Irish/American lexicon – literally, in fact, thanks to the 48,000 Irish work visas he helped create through the 1990 Immigration Reform Act during his final year in the House of Representatives, which instantly became known as 'Morrison visas'.

However, the legal aid lawyer turned human rights-attuned politician actually played a much more critical role in the evolution of Irish-American affairs, not to mention the evolution of Northern Ireland itself.

Rhodeen's page-turning account of Morrison's 'behind the scenes' endeavours uncovers how he quietly, painstakingly helped lay the groundwork for US involvement in the peace process.

While visiting Ireland as part of independent group Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA) throughout the early 1990s, Morrison spent countless hours meeting with nationalists, republicans (with whom he worked to help secure the IRA ceasefires), the Irish and British governments and – crucially – the loyalists and unionists previously 'off the radar' for most Americans.

Moreover, he recognised his old friend Bill Clinton's potential to make America a key player in ending the Troubles, persuading him to include bold pledges about altering US policy on Ireland in his 1992 election campaign (thus securing the endorsement of vital Irish-American voters) while also keeping the future president fully appraised of what was going on 'over there'.

Well, almost.

"I confess that when I read the book, I learned about a few things that even I didn't know about!" remarks Clinton in his foreward for Peacerunner.

The 42nd president describes the book as "the remarkable story of how a private citizen became a trusted interlocutor on both sides of the Atlantic, constantly pushing all the parties to resolve their complicated differences".

"For Bruce, it was all about doing the things that needed doing," explains Rhodeen of Morrison's 'peacerunning' days, which found him bringing American-style political problem-solving to the north.

"You connect at a grass-roots level: you talk to everybody, you recognise who can help move things forward. It was a brick-by-brick approach.

"George Mitchell once described Bruce to me as 'the most informed member of Congress on Ireland'.

"When I told him that Bruce wasn't actually in Congress back then, he was shocked – even moreso than Bill Clinton.

"'Well, what was he doing there?", he said. Mitchell really had no idea Morrison was so 'foundational' to what was eventually achieved in 1998."

The former Congressman's involvement in the north stemmed from an eye-opening personal experience during his very first visit here in 1987 – an account of which forms Peacerunner's attention-grabbing opening.

While touring Derry with Sinn Fein's Gerry O'Hara as a representative of the Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs, their car was stopped by an RUC patrol, who proceeded to hold Morrison at machinegun-point while demanding to know he was doing with "a terrorist scumbag".

 

The American subsequently rated the security situation in the north as even more oppressive than what he'd witnessed during a visit to Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile – and became determined to do something about it.

It quickly became clear that Morrison's best chance of doing that would be through his old college chum, Bill Clinton, who was savvy enough to recognise that he was being offered the chance to make history – and had the guts to take on the challenge.

Both before and after his election, Clinton repeatedly went against his own policy advisors and the British government (John Major refused to take his phone calls on a couple of occasions) by taking a newly pro-active approach to the Irish conflict that would eventually culminate in George Mitchell's involvement in chairing all-party talks.

"Bruce admits that there was no way of knowing the degree to which Clinton would take to this issue or what he would do with it," comments Rhodeen.

"It went so far beyond his hopes and expectations that it would mean so much to the president and that he would become so dedicated to Ireland."

The author, a New Haven-based lawyer specialising in cases involving children, is well placed to tell this compelling tale: Rhodeen and Bruce Morrison are old friends and he also goes "way back" with former first lady-turned presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who actually interned with the lawyer-turned-writer during her time at Yale Law School.

"I'm very happy with the book and I do think it tells a worthwhile story," he tells me of Peacerunner. "What I like the most is that people seem to find it an exciting story, which is exactly what I intended.

"Obviously it's an Irish story in so many respects, but it's also broader: there aren't that many cases where, through a deliberate decision by the people involved, a course of warfare gives way to a course of politics.

"When I visited Belfast in 2014, I found to my great encouragement that people were complaining like crazy about their politicians – which, of course, is exactly the way you want it to be.

"On the other hand, I do think there's just no sense any more of what politics is good for and what it can really accomplish.

"In our current crazy presidential election, for example, there's a real debate about whether politics matter and whether people's qualifications and qualities matter.

"Peacerunner, of course, is a story about how they do matter and how they really make a difference.

"While there were some American political superstars involved, the great political heroes were the ones who sat in those rooms with George Mitchell and fought and argued and made their deal almost 20 years ago."

As Peacerunner makes plain, Bruce Morrison is most definitely one of the greatest unsung 'heroes' of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Rhodeen remains optimistic that we might have a new President Clinton visiting Belfast in the near future.

"I hope so," he says.

"I certainly support Hillary and think very highly of her. I think she really is capable of being president because she already knows what the office entails. It's hard to imagine anyone better equipped to deal with that 3am phone call about something terrible, but another important part of being president is being able to discern opportunities.

"Bruce Morrison helped Bill Clinton to see an opportunity to do some good in a situation that hadn't even been on his radar previously – but he took some chances and they bore fruit."

As the Americans might put it, 'Boy, did they ever.'

:: Peacerunner is out now, published by BenBella.

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