Rarely in the history of Anglo-American relations has the White House overtly supported Irish demands against Great Britain on the Irish Question. The one clear instance--until recently--was President Andrew Johnson’s courting of New York City’s Irish-Americans, who were considered a swing vote in the 1866 midterm congressional elections. Battered by a hostile Congress, Johnson attempted to win the votes he desperately needed by allowing the United States to be used as a fundraising center and staging ground for an Irish-American invasion of Canada. His move had the added benefit of pandering to lingering American resentment over Britain’s aid to the Confederacy during the Civil War. The far-fetched invasion scheme, a bid to make Irish independence the ransom for the return of Canada, failed (as did Johnson’s presidency). In its aftermath, U.S.-British differences remaining from the Civil War were resolved by the Washington Treaty of 1871.

In the 130 years between Presidents Johnson and Clinton, the Irish in America were unable to duplicate such influence over the White House. Anglo-Irish clashes were frequent and often violent, but even when anti-British agitation in Ireland was most intense, Irish-Americans could do no more than pressure the U.S. Congress to pass resolutions in support of Irish aspirations and on occasion prevent ratification of Anglo-American agreements. Those congressional successes, however, had no significant impact on the decisions of the executive branch--that is, until Bill Clinton entered the White House.


The Arkansas politician’s involvement in the Irish Question began, like many other Clinton initiatives, during the 1992 presidential primary campaign. In March of that year, President George Bush talked to Irish leaders at the annual Saint Patrick’s Day ceremonies in Washington about the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. However, he only expressed a personal concern for the problems there. He said he was willing to help find a solution but neither he nor the United States could dictate one. Those involved would have to reach an accord among themselves.

Bush’s position had long been the American policy, but by 1992 a new spirit had emerged in the Irish-American community. Both Representative Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn condemned Bush for not taking a more active role in the Irish struggle and tried to make his policy an issue in the presidential primaries. While Bush was sidestepping any discussion of direct U.S. involvement in the Irish troubles, Clinton was campaigning for the Connecticut and New York primaries. In the midst of those campaigns, John Dearie, an assemblyman from the Bronx, was organizing a forum sponsored by Irish-Americans at which the Democratic presidential candidates would discuss Irish issues. Clinton, even after the forum was rescheduled to accommodate his schedule, said he would be unable to attend.

Neither Clinton nor his leading opponent, former California governor Jerry Brown, had shown much interest in or knowledge of Irish issues before the Connecticut primary, but its results changed that. Brown narrowly beat Clinton, 37 percent to 36 percent, and carried 40 percent of white Catholic voters, to Clinton’s 35 percent. White Catholics constituted 47 percent of the voters in the primary. In an about-face, Clinton agreed to attend the Irish-American forum.

At the April 5 forum, two days before the New York primary, both Brown and Clinton said they would appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland, pressure the British on human rights violations there, and issue a visa to Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Adams had been denied one for 20 years. They also offered to grant political asylum hearings in extradition cases that involved suspected IRA members living in the United States, support a more open immigration policy, and endorse the MacBride Principles against employment discrimination in Northern Ireland. The audience could not believe their ears; they had never heard such direct statements in support of the Irish agenda from mainstream presidential candidates.

Clinton had to endorse those ideas once Brown did so. He had to make inroads among Irish and Roman Catholic voters, to whom Brown could appeal as a Catholic, a former Jesuit seminarian, and a descendant of a Tipperary clan. Whether or not his adoption of the Irish agenda gained him votes, Clinton won the New York primary, giving his campaign a gigantic boost. To ensure that he remembered his remarks at Dearie’s forum, later that year its organizers created a campaign organization, Irish-Americans for Clinton and Gore.


In late October, as the presidential campaign drew to a close, Clinton, under pressure to clarify his views on Irish issues, wrote a public letter to Bruce Morrison, co-chairman of Irish-Americans for Clinton and Gore, in which he repeated his earlier promises. But he also pledged that ‘a Clinton administration will take a more active role’ in talks on Northern Ireland and tell the British to reduce job discrimination against Catholics there and to ‘establish more effective safeguards against the wanton use of lethal force and against further collusion between the security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups.’ The letter was written with the advice of Nancy Soderberg, a former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who was serving on Clinton’s campaign staff as a foreign policy adviser.

When Clinton won the presidency, both London and Dublin were troubled because his campaign pledges pointed to a more active U.S. role in Northern Ireland. The concern in both capitals was heightened by the new president’s appointment of Jean Kennedy Smith as ambassador to Ireland. She is the widowed sister of Edward Kennedy and the aunt of U.S. Representatives Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), all of whom relied on Irish-American voters for their political success.

Smith also had personal connections to the problems in Northern Ireland. She was a friend of John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party there, and her niece, Mary Courtney Kennedy, was romantically involved with Paul Michael Hill, who had been convicted of bombing two pubs in England in 1974. He was released in 1989 after serving 15 years in British jails when it was revealed that the British police had tampered with evidence. On June 24, 1993, the new ambassador submitted her credentials to Irish President Mary Robinson. Three days later, Mary Courtney Kennedy married Paul Hill.

Despite his campaign pledges and the promise of a more active role for the American ambassador in Dublin, Clinton followed the traditional U.S. policy toward Northern Ireland in 1993. He twice refused to grant Gerry Adams a visa and avoided naming a special envoy. Afforded few opportunities to act on the Irish troubles, Clinton concentrated on his number one campaign pledge, to look after things at home.


By the end of that year, however, the character of the Northern Ireland dispute had changed dramatically. A series of developments, including secret talks--between Hume and Adams, between the British government and the IRA, and between Dublin and London--culminated in the Downing Street Declaration. The accord, issued December 15, 1993, declared that Britain had no economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland and that it would allow Sinn Fein, in exchange for an IRA cease-fire, to come to the bargaining table and would begin the withdrawal of British troops from Ulster. Furthermore, the people of Northern Ireland would be given the opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The Downing Street Declaration led to the hastily organized announcement by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy of a conference on Northern Ireland, and representatives from all sides from the strife-torn region were invited to present their views in New York on February 1, 1994. Adams got an invitation, which gave him another chance to apply for a visa. According to a number of sources, Edward Kennedy and his ambassador sister hatched a plan to finally get Adams into the United States on New Year’s Day at her official residence in Dublin.

The British government, meanwhile, had made it clear that it did not want Clinton to grant Adams a visa because Sinn Fein had not renounced the use of violence and the IRA had not formally declared a cease-fire. However, under considerable pressure from 40 members of Congress, led by Senators Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and supported by Ambassador Smith, Clinton snubbed Britain, overruled the State Department and the U.S. embassy in London, and granted Adams a limited visa to attend the New York conference. In doing so he fulfilled his campaign pledge, but he also infuriated the unionists in Northern Ireland and, more important, the British, who angrily decried the death of the ‘special relationship’ between America and England.

Only days before, State Department officials had said they would grant Adams a visa only if Sinn Fein renounced violence. The White House, however, hoped that the visa would clear the way for just such a declaration. To make matters worse, the quid pro quo for the visa was not delivered. During his visit to America, Adams said nothing new on the search for an end to the violence. Furthermore, within weeks the violence escalated, and the IRA closed London’s main airports with bomb threats and mortar attacks. Not until a delegation of private citizens from the United States visited the Irish government in Dublin and Adams in Belfast were all the pieces in place. On August 31, 1994, Adams announced that the IRA had issued a unilateral, unconditional cease-fire. The IRA council had voted 5-4 for the cease-fire, according to the minutes of the meeting, mainly because of the power of the Irish-American lobby, which was viewed as ‘not in hock to any particular party in Ireland or Britain’ and because ‘Clinton is perhaps the first U.S. president in decades to be substantially influenced by such a lobby.’

Clinton went from being a reluctant participant to an active player when he decided, soon thereafter, to grant Adams a new visa and lift the ban on official U.S. contacts with Sinn Fein. And his involvement did not end there. Before the end of the year, he granted Adams another visa, this time for three months and multiple visits; let Adams meet with senior White House officials; appointed then-Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) as his personal representative on Northern Ireland, charged with organizing an upcoming conference on investing there; and increased by $10 million the U.S. contribution to the International Fund for Ireland.

These decisions had no impact on the major stumbling block in the peace process: whether the IRA would have to disarm before any major political changes were made or the IRA and British forces would ‘demilitarize,’ in Adams’ words, in tandem. But they may have helped exert pressure on the Irish and the British to produce the February 1995 elaboration of the Downing Street Declaration.

Before the strengthened declaration broke the impasse between the British and the IRA, Clinton took steps that again infuriated London. In March 1995, after another round of enormous pressure from the British not to grant Adams anything new and from the Irish-American community to do just that, Clinton not only issued Adams another visa but permitted him to open an office in Washington, raise funds in the United States, and attend a White House reception on Saint Patrick’s Day in honor of the new Irish prime minister, John Bruton.

The rift between British Prime Minister John Major and Clinton, by then a large one, was somewhat eased over the next several months. Last June, Clinton announced that he would visit both Belfast and Dublin in the fall and that he wanted the peace negotiations fully under way at that time. However, all-party talks were delayed through the summer by the dispute over the decommissioning of IRA arms. In August the IRA announced that it would not give up its weapons, further setting back the Irish and British governments’ joint effort to get the discussions started. Not until the eve of Clinton’s visit to London were Major and Bruton able to announce a new two-track agreement, which included a plan to create an international commission, headed by Senator Mitchell, that would discuss the arms issue and reopen preliminary all-party talks at the same time. Unfortunately, when Mitchell issued his report in late January 1996, Major decided to effectively ignore it and called for an election to get all-party talks started. The IRA, in turn, announced the end of the cease-fire with a bomb blast in London on February 9.


Whatever the outcome of Clinton’s efforts to bring peace to Northern Ireland (in his words) or to gain the votes of Irish-Americans in 1996 (the British view), he made them for the same reasons that gave the Irish such influence over Andrew Johnson. Johnson needed votes in critical New York City congressional races. Clinton needed votes in New York’s presidential primary and, in the general campaign, Irish-American votes in New England (without which he would have lost the election) and, especially, in New York and California. Whether or not that ploy actually delivered those states remains unclear. But when he became president, Clinton did run into opposition to his Irish initiative in both London, where it was expected, and in Dublin, where it was not. He had to quickly back away from his promises of a special envoy and a visa for Adams until the Downing Street Declaration helped open new opportunities.

Clinton’s vulnerability to Irish-American political pressure increased as he suffered through a series of foreign and domestic policy setbacks, notably on health care reform. He needed the help of such Irish-American congressional leaders as Kennedy and Moynihan, and he had to give them what they wanted. But doing so would enrage the British. One White House official acknowledged when Adams’ first visa was granted, ‘It obviously ticks off the Brits, but equally obvious, that is acceptable to a lot of us.’

That attitude toward the British also figured in the decisions of Clinton officials as they formulated an Irish policy. The special Anglo-American relationship, increasingly important from the late nineteenth century on, waned in significance with the passing of the Cold War. By 1993 Clinton’s advisers saw no reason why the British should receive special treatment. America’s interests no longer coincided with Britain’s interests, as the unfolding of the Bosnia crisis in the spring of 1992 showed. Thus Clinton’s need to reach for the Irish-American vote in both 1992 and 1994 could be satisfied without any fear of causing damage to an American national interest.

Nor would anything Clinton did for the Irish-American lobby cost him votes; most Americans do not understand, nor do they care about, the troubles in Ireland. In fact, with his domestic program in shambles, by the summer of 1994 the president could hope to gain votes among the general population by bringing peace to Ireland. That hope only grew in the aftermath of the Republican victory in the November 1994 elections.

Whatever happens in the upcoming race, it is now clear that the Clinton years have changed the special relationship with Great Britain. What began in the 1880s and grew in the twentieth century is no longer necessary. The new migration of the Irish from the mid-1970s to the present--generated by Ireland’s economic travails and special visa programs directed toward the Irish--has reinvigorated the Irish lobby, which will continue to influence national and state elections. From 1987 to 1994, some 71,000 Irish citizens received visas. Of the 50,000 Irish immigrants now living in Boston, 20,000 are illegal. As of the 1990 census, 79,000 first-generation Irish lived in Massachusetts, and 1.6 million residents claimed some Irish ancestry. The statistical portrait is similar for California, other New England states, and New York.

Irish-Americans live in politically significant areas, and politicians will see them as a potential swing vote as long as they appear to vote as a bloc. Maintaining that cohesion will require continued leadership on the part of Irish-American politicians and, more important, an agenda that is driven by events in Northern Ireland and capable of molding and solidifying that voting bloc. Ironically, if the Clinton effort brings a final settlement of the centuries-old Irish Question, Irish-Americans will have no reason to forge an agenda that will hold their reinvigorated pressure group together. Unfortunately, the Ira’s most recent decisions and actions do not indicate that the troubles of Northern Ireland will end soon.

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