Henry McDonald: Irish nationalists can’t rely on Joe Biden, as events in Kabul show

In terms of shoring up devolution, Stormont and power sharing George W Bush was arguably the most successful American president over the last three decades.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 23rd August 2021, 11:38 am
Updated Monday, 23rd August 2021, 11:45 am
Irish republicans fawned over Joe Biden, see above with Boris Johnson at the G7 in Cornwall in June, and began to think he would press London for a border poll. But US isolationism and the shameful surrender in Afghanistan should shatter illusions of an interventionist approach to Ireland
Irish republicans fawned over Joe Biden, see above with Boris Johnson at the G7 in Cornwall in June, and began to think he would press London for a border poll. But US isolationism and the shameful surrender in Afghanistan should shatter illusions of an interventionist approach to Ireland

Or to be wholly accurate it was Bush the Younger’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Mitchell Reiss who did more than most to push over the line the Provos and Paisley to enter into a once unthinkable coalition based on policies hammered out at the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

Contrary to the fictional, cartoon version of the Ian Paisley/Martin McGuinness love-in BBC drama ‘The Journey’ a few years ago, it was the hard headed insistence by Reiss (backed over in the White House by President Bush) that the Democratic Unionists could only enter devolved government with Sinn Fein until republicans fully supported policing and the judicial system in the state they had tried in vain for 40 years to physically destroy.

As the American academic Mary Ann Clancy has pointed out in her equally hard-headed, refreshingly realistic book ‘Peace Without Consensus’, it was Reiss who pressured Tony Blair’s government not to back down over the DUP’s core precondition that Sinn Fein must sign up to back the police and the rule of law before the deal could be done.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble

Since the unsung Reiss departed from the post in 2007 Washington DC has become semi-detached from Northern Ireland politics.

There have been the usual platitudes, promises of inward US investment and the odd St Patrick’s Day invite from first Obama and then the even more detached, arguably semi-deranged Trump administration.

Although Trump did attend a fund-raising dinner in New York city for Sinn Fein in the 1990s with Gerry Adams the chief guest at the event, during his one term presidency the Great Disruptor paid little or no attention to events at Stormont.

And then came Joe Biden riding into town. Irish nationalism’s newest messiah who arrived with words of warning about Brexit, the perfidious Brits, a potentially hard Irish border and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

His deputies like that witless wind bag Nancy Pelosi delivered speeches expressing support for the Irish government and northern nationalist parties’ campaign against Brexit.

Their intervention re-created the grand delusion of the early 1990s when unionism supposedly faced an ever-powerful global pincer movement comprising of Dublin, the Clinton White House, northern pan-nationalism and even the EU.

SDLP politicians in particular fell over themselves to in turn fawn over Biden and his frontline team. Harder line nationalists pushing for a border poll started to believe that Washington would soon be pressing down on London and Boris Johnson in particular for a constitutional plebiscite.

While deep green columnists couldn’t conceal their glee that President Biden had joined in the long march towards a United Ireland that now, surely with the White House and the US Congress on board was in sight via that border poll just around the corner.

The shameful, chaotic surrender of America in Kabul last week should shatter that illusion.

The cynical abandonment of the USA’s allies in Afghanistan – the interpreters, the ANA soldiers, the civilian workers, the entire female population of that country – is a triumph for the policy of America First.

Biden’s cold indifferent dismissal of the scenes at Kabul Airport last week does not just underline the man’s political opportunism. It also confirms that isolationism has, if you pardon the pun, trumped interventionism in American foreign policy.

President Biden or rather his fully awake and conscious strategists are banking on the calculation that within 12 months, in the run up to the mid-term elections, the voters who switched from Donald to Joe will stick with the Democrats especially those that were in favour of America First under Trump. They will seek to ride out the embarrassment and disgrace of last week if they can hold onto anti-interventionist voters in the next Congressional electoral contests.

American has not shed any blood and has in truth hardly expended much treasure in relation to Northern Ireland. There will of course continue to be volleys of verbal warnings fired from the greenest fringes of the Democratic Party even in Congress but they won’t have any real, lasting, damaging impact.

Nor more critically has this administration any moral authority to lecture politicians here about the need to do the right thing by their people.

Not when they can ditch with lightning speed millions of people that had put so much faith in American power to protect them from a movement that seeks drive their society back into a 7th century theocratic state.

Back in the heady days of Clinton at least it could be said the US had re-entered the world and was eventually projecting some power to halt the complete annihilation of the peoples of Bosnia and later Kosovo.

The rest of the world including this place couldn’t help but sit up and notice what the White House was telling them. After Kabul this summer who would trust let alone give a hearing to an administration that has switched off from that world ... at least for now.

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