Having spent last week in Washington, D.C. and New York, I spent the weekend catching up on the news from home that I’d missed and indeed mulling over the conversations about home I’d had.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers announced last week a new round of all-party talks designed to break the impasse on the past, parades, flags, welfare reform and anything else anyone cares to throw into the mix now or at any time before the commencement of talks or indeed at the eleventh hour when a deal might be done. It seems there really is no agenda just yet.
One item that does seem to be on everyone’s agenda, however, is the intervention of the United States in facilitating or supporting the Talks process. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams has called for the United States to be directly involved in the Talks process, with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan in Washington last week being a tad more reserved: “reiterating my message on the need for continued strong US support for the peace process in Northern Ireland.” The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell has said that the “US Administration should be in that room and be closely involved.”
The question then is how do the Americans feel about this?
Washington insiders last week were slow to be overtly critical of any particular party to the talks for the failure of the Haass – O’Sullivan process last year. What they weren’t slow to articulate, however, was the sense that key figures in Washington felt slighted that they’d put their “best people” on the job and those people had been essentially ignored. Amongst those I spoke to there was no urgency to send their “best people” back again to risk another failure. “Washington likes quick wins,” one said to me.
On the subject of the upcoming talks on BBC’s “The View” last week, Nancy Soderberg, who has a long and distinguished connection to the north, reassured us that “the United States will be there to help it happen.” What was perhaps more telling, however, was not that the US would continue to support the peace process but that they were actually rather fed up with having to. “The United States remains very deeply engaged in this because the parties have not shown an ability to negotiate it on their own which is unfortunate but there is no doubt that the United States will remain involved from the President on down as need be,” she said. The key qualifier there is “as need be” because the United States simply does not see the need. There is no “quick win” in it the peace process for Washington anymore. They had the “win” – albeit not a quick one – with George Mitchell and rejecting Haass – O’Sullivan was a slap in the face. “As need be” is more about encouraging economic investment than sending another envoy to be insulted.
Soderberg wasn’t shy either about laying the blame for the failure to agree on flags, parades and the past with the political leadership and to articulate a growing sense of frustration and impatience felt not just by America but it seems too by the British and Irish governments. “The United States cannot solve this for the people of Northern Ireland, it’s up to the leadership there and that’s where I’m saying perhaps if this generation can’t do it, it’s time to pass the baton and get a generation that looks forward not past. But it has to happen and as long as you’re still arguing about the past you’re preventing a prosperous future and that’s not good leadership and that’s what has to change.”
The view from Capitol Hill is that getting President Obama involved again at this stage is like sending the Chief Constable out to a domestic disturbance – do we not think he has bigger fish to fry? With mid-term elections in Washington coming up and the strong possibility of Republicans taking control of the Senate, the continuing backlash over healthcare and renewed airstrikes in the Middle East he’s kind of busy with domestics of his own.