Two recent incidents are emblematic of why so many people switch off when it comes to Northern Ireland.
For a decade until 1998, I was Senator Ted Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser and heavily involved in the Northern Ireland peace process. One of my jobs was to help him convince President Clinton to grant Gerry Adams a visa to visit the US in 1994 because we believed that could help bring an end to the violence there.
In this blog, (see 21 January entry), I wrote about the 20 year anniversary of that visa which was instrumental in leading the IRA to declare a ceasefire later that year. In response to that blog, David Hilditch, a DUP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, wrote to me saying ‘shame on you.’ As I wrote to Mr. Hilditch, we saw an opportunity to do something that could help stop the violence in Northern Ireland. We did so and were right to do so. I asked him if he’d rather we hadn’t, perhaps he’d rather people still be killing each other? As of yet, no reply from Mr. Hilditch.
Both sides equally carry their grudges. In December 2004, the Northern Bank in Belfast was robbed. In January 2005, Robert McCartney was murdered in Belfast. Members of the IRA were implicated in both incidents. Even though I no longer worked for Senator Kennedy, I continued to advise him on all things Irish until his death. I recommended that he not meet with Gerry Adams when he was in Washington for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in 2005 because doing so would suggest we had no problem with the robbery and the murder and would send the signal that there would be no repercussions for such things. Senator Kennedy agreed and declined to meet Adams. Senator Clinton’s adviser Kris Balderston asked my advice and I gave the same. Senator Clinton refused to see Adams as well. President Bush did the same. Rita O’Hare, the Sinn Fein representative to the US, was furious with me and never spoke to me again. After not seeing Rita for years, I saw her last night at the Irish Embassy St. Patrick’s Day party and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to laughingly ask her, “Are you still not speaking to me?” I caught her off guard but repeated that two more times. She stared daggers at me, didn’t say a word and marched off in a huff. Kennedy’s snub was widely credited with contributing to the IRA decommissioning within months. As I said to Hilditch, Ms. O’Hare, what am I meant to be apologizing for?
Senator George Mitchell, in writing about his foray into Northern Ireland, recounted that someone said to him “To understand us, Senator, you must realize that we in Northern Ireland will drive 100 miles out of our way to receive an insult.” And he could have added, “and we’ll never get over it.” Northern Ireland is slow to grasp the future because far too many are mired in the past, with some event resenting what turned out to be good things.