Alex Massie

The United States and the IRA

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Responding to Stephen Walt's hypothetical (What if Gaza were full of jews?), Megan McArdle compares the Israel lobby to the Irish-American lobby. Ross Douthat says, OK, but the IRA was still considered a terrorist organisation. Daniel Larison dives into the weeds of US attitudes towards Irish terrorism. He writes:

The IRA was a genuine terrorist group, but it was listed as such by our government most of all because it was a sworn enemy of one of our closest allies. The record seems clear: terrorist groups that are useful to us or harmful to states we officially oppose are given a pass, while those that target us or our allies are condemned in the strongest terms. That’s the nature of things in the real world, I suppose, but it is something that none of the reponses to the counterfactual seems to be taking into account. Had things gone very differently in the last century and London and Washington became enemies once more, it is very easy to imagine that the IRA or similar groups would have been made into anti-British proxies of the U.S. government.

True enough. And of course the State Department did have the IRA on its list of terrorist groups. Nonetheless, the State Department is not quite the same as the US government. And in the 1990s there's no denying that Washington generally shared the (Irish) Republican analysis of the state of play in Ulster. Indeed the Clinton administration viewed itself as a kind of backstop looking after Sinn Fein's interetss and point of view. Crucially, that's how the Republican movement saw the Americans too. They were there to provide support and ballast for the nationalist viewpoint, countering the presumed pro-Unionist bias of the British. That is to say, Dublin and Washington would, together, counter the Brits in Belfast and London. It's peace, of a sort, but it's not a result that was supposed to happen. Nor is it one that many people would have found acceptable back in, say, 1994.

Sure, Clinton made plenty of phone calls and a visit or two. But when push came to shove he refused to put additional pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA. Consequently the Good Friday Agreement was signed despite there being a crippling ambiguity on the question of decommissioning terrorist arms. The failure to resolve that problem would cripple the peae "settlement" for years, helping to hollow-out the centre of Northern Irish politics, leading us to the present happy state of play: government by bigots and murderers.

This wasn't, obviously, all Clinton's fault. Nontheless one reason Tony Blair lost faith in the american president was Clinton's habit of promising to lean on the Republican movement and then signally failing to follow his promises with, like, actual action. The State Department may have been hostile to the IRA  -it opposed giving Gerry Adams visas to enter the US - but the rest of the US government, including the likes of Tony Lake at the National Security Council was entirely sympathetic to the "cause" of Irish Republicanism.

Daniel says:

Were it not for our very close postwar relations with London, it is hard to imagine that modern U.S. policy would have been all that different from the tolerance for Stateside Fenian and IRB organizers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the rapturous welcome accorded to the republican extremist De Valera when he visited the United States. Popular opinion in the U.S. was very much behind the Irish nationalist cause and it spread far beyond the Irish immigrant community. For a country nursed on Anglophobia, Irish republicanism appeared as a sister movement to our own fight for independence.

True enough. However, as I say, I think that there was, despite all the public pronouncements to the contrary, a kind of sotto voce enthusiasm for the IRA and its aims if not always its methods!) that persisted, despite the powerful inducements to give the British the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, it's probably not entirely coincidental that Washington became more interested in the Irish problem once a) a Democrat was back in the White House and b) the Cold War had ended, lessening British influence in Washington and the importance of assuaging British concerns. (Also, of course, Reagan was not likely to look too favourably upon the people who tried to murder his great friend Margaret.) Still, when the "peace process" got underway it didn't come as much surprise to discover that the US was in the green corner. No suprise there and it might be, too, that this was necessary. But let's not pretend that Washington was a neutral player.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalirelandterrorism