State Papers

Bill Clinton's peace envoy idea caused 'deep concern' in British government

President Bill Clinton and Senator George J. Mitchell
Éamon Phoenix

THE proposal by Bill Clinton to appoint a 'peace envoy' for Northern Ireland caused deep concern in British government circles.

State papers chart the efforts of British diplomats and the Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew to influence leading Irish-American politicians and a key Clinton adviser to drop the idea.

In his autobiography, President Clinton refers to a late-night meeting he had in 1992 with "about a hundred Irish activists" who wanted him to promise to appoint a special representative to push for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland "on terms that were fair to the Catholic minority".

"I said I would do it though I knew it would infuriate the British."

In a telegram dated December 11, 1992, following Mr Clinton's presidential victory, the British ambassador to Washington, Robin Renwick told Sir Patrick Mayhew that the idea "caused a lot of concern in Britain".

Speaking about IRA violence, Mr Renwick said: "We have just witnessed an exhibition of the wanton use of lethal force by the IRA in Manchester. This was a matter on which the British people were united. Sinn Féin won just one per cent of the vote in the Irish election. They had never been able to win a majority of Catholic votes in the north. Gerry Adams had been defeated by the SDLP in the last election.

"I said when the prime minister (John Major) met Governor Clinton he would want to emphasise the difficulties of the task we faced in Northern Ireland and to stress that further statements should only be made after conversations with him."

SDLP leader John Hume with US President Bill Clinton

The issue re-surfaced during a tour of the US in May 1993 by Sir Patrick. Mr Renwick said Mr Clinton had "wisely backed off his campaign promises".

"The National Security Council tell us that the peace envoy proposal is firmly on the back burner." However, he advised caution on the part of the British Government: "It is important that we do not make it hard for Clinton to back off by publicly pronouncing the proposal dead."

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He stated that the administration had just turned down Gerry Adams’s application for a visa.

In Renwick's view, Sir Patrick's forthcoming meeting with Mr Clinton's Attorney-General, Janet Reno and FBI Director, Sessions offered an opportunity to reinforce the need for cooperation.

Overall, the diplomat noted: "Congress is dominated by moderate Irish-Americans, notably Speaker Foley who made a particularly helpful statement on Warrington." Mr Foley, he noted, along with Senator Edward Kennedy and the Friends of Ireland had been "crucial in steering Irish-American opinion in a more moderate direction".

Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew pictured with Prime Minister John Major. Picture by Pacemaker

The NI secretary would also have an opportunity to meet Senator Dodd who had engineered a Senate Foreign Relations hearing on Northern Ireland focusing on alleged human rights abuses by the security forces.

However, he noted: "We have told him that the leading practitioners of such abuses are the IRA." Among those who were "less helpful" towards the British case in Congress, he felt "were motivated by constituency groups" such as Congressmen Joe Kennedy and Peter King.

"The Irish-American community is more moderate over Northern Ireland than it was ten years ago. That is largely thanks to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. John Hume has a lot of influence here," Mr Renwick wrote.

Turning to Sir Patrick's US tour, the diplomat felt that he should stress "that the UK has no selfish interest in Northern Ireland and is prepared to accept any solution acceptable to both communities".

The issue of the envoy re-emerged during Sir Patrick's visit to Boston in May 1993. Mayor Ray Flynn, informed him that "President Clinton was still considering the question of a peace envoy" adding if Mr Clinton "went back on his word the president would suffer serious political consequences".

In January 1994, Mr Clinton incensed the John Major government by granting Mr Adams a visa to travel to the US and that December appointed former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy.

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