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Belfast Telegraph logo
3 April 2017

History tells us the resolute Mr Reiss may be just the man to knock a few heads together at Stormont

If politicians mess up again, tough former US envoy is perfect choice to chair talks, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Mitchell Reiss's appointment in 2003 was key in getting Stormont back up and running
Mitchell Reiss's appointment in 2003 was key in getting Stormont back up and running

Attempting to normatively blame, or to empirically explain, the trajectory of post-Agreement politics via the consociational model alone is reductionist as it fails to acknowledge both the dynamic created by the peace and political processes’ internationalisation and the Agreement’s centripetal potential.”

That sentence almost finished me off with Mary-Alice Clancy’s Peace Without Consensus: Power Sharing Politics In Northern Ireland, which I had just scanned in search of insights into what happens when outsiders try to resolve Northern Ireland’s political problems.

But I gave it a second chance.

Before I explain why the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs should be bearing its conclusions in mind this week, here are a few thoughts about academic history.

Without historians to do the patient work of uncovering truth, we would all be peddling whatever myths suited us.

Fortunately, there has been excellent work produced on Irish history over many decades that has opened the eyes of people from very different backgrounds to the sheer complexity of our past.

That doesn’t work in Sinn Fein, of course, for its leadership has no interest in the past except to use it as a propaganda tool, so it sticks with the MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) narrative of Irish history that has led generations of young people to kill and die for Ireland.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” — and unfortunately since the 1960s academics are proving that point.

Instead of making it easy to disseminate the fruits of good research far and wide in a form comprehensible to a layman, generations of students of history, politics, social sciences and literature who wanted good grades or an academic career were required to use impenetrable jargon to prove their seriousness.

Meanwhile, academic publishers discovered they could make lots of money by charging huge prices for academic journals and books approved by professionals which university libraries have to buy.

Hence the price tag of £78.78 on Dr Clancy’s excellent book, and the occasional chunks of gobbledygook messing up her otherwise lucid prose, which together meant her only chance of getting her ideas out to the public was if journalists read her book and wrote about it — as a few did when it came out in 2010.

Dr Clancy undertook extensive research to find out if the British, Irish and US Governments bore any responsibility for Northern Ireland ending up dominated by its two most intransigent parties.

Through interviews with British, Irish and US officials and the scrutiny of documents, she has established that Dublin and Washington had come to favour that outcome by 2002, and London wasn’t very far behind.

Then she looked at who was responsible for making the DUP and Sinn Fein actually get into bed together.

Certainly, to Irish nationalists the Clinton administration (1993-2001) has been seen as the good guys because of such interventions as the issuing of a visa to Gerry Adams in 1994 against the wishes of the British Government.

But what Dr Clancy’s research finally proves is that DUP and Sinn Fein power-sharing (aka consociationalism) simply could not have happened without pressure from George W Bush’s administration, a view long held by a few journalists — including me. 

Bush’s first envoy Richard Haass floundered. However, in 2003 he was replaced by Mitchell Reiss, who proved to be genuinely independent-minded, tough and impervious to either flattery or bullying and determined that acceptance of policing as well as paramilitary disarmament and disbandment must be a requirement of getting into government.

He and Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell, an unusually principled member of the Irish Government, even stared down Blair and Ahern when they wanted to dodge insisting on the ending of paramilitary criminality.

If local politicians mess up again and the voices calling for an outsider to chair talks prevail, the British, Irish and US Governments have the right man for the job.

Reiss is a member of the four-person Independent Reporting Commission set up under the Fresh Start Agreement by the British and Irish Governments and the NI Executive to examine paramilitary activity.

As Dr Clancy has shown conclusively, who could be a better choice?

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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