Just five months before the 20th anniversary of the Provisional IRA’s original ceasefire declaration, US President Barack Obama has expressed disappointment at the failure of Irish politicians to deal with the collapse of the latest mediation talks.
Mr Obama’s comments come after US envoy Richard Haass was condemned by DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness for warning of the potential for a return to violence in the absence of political progress.
Speaking alongside 26-County Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the White House’s Oval Office as part of the annual meeting to mark St Patrick’s Day, the US President pushed the North’s political leaders to work together. He said he and Mr Kenny shared an interest in seeing Ireland “finally bring an end to what so often has been a tragic history.”
“I was disappointed, the US government was disappointed that the all-party talks could not arrive at a final conclusion and agreement, but we are urging the parties to continue to work and negotiate,” he said.
Mr Obama said he “knew” that the “good influence” from Dublin would help encourage leaders to “move out of the past and get the kind of history or the kind of future that Northern Ireland so richly deserves.”
Mr Obama himself said he would “love” to return to Ireland. “Tell everybody in Moneygall I said ‘hi’,” he said.
The two leaders afterwards travelled to the US Capitol to attend the annual St Patrick’s Day lunch where the traditional ‘bowl of shamrock’ presentation took place.
There were further signs of growing impatience between the Obama administration and Stormont politicians when the president failed to ‘drop by’ talks between Vice President Joe Biden and the North’s First and Deputy First Ministers.
Earlier this week, US diplomat Richard Haass was criticised for warning that conflict could return to the north of Ireland if contentious issues such as flags, parades and the past are not tackled.
First Minister Peter Robinson sharply insisted that Mr Haass should not “talk up” the problems in the North.
“We never want to go back to those dark days of the past and I think it’s probably unhelpful to start talking in those terms,” he said. “You don’t want to talk up violence, you want to talk up the prospect of stability and peace.”
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also contradicted Mr Haass and said he didn’t “have any sense whatsoever that the situation will slip back to the past”.
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, who is also in Washington DC, said Mr Haass’s comments were a warning for “us to get a grip on things in Northern Ireland, to get control of things and sort out the continuing differences”.
Mr Haass, along with US academic Meghan O’Sullivan, chaired six months of talks on flags, parades and the past last year, which broke up on New Year’s eve without agreement. Attempts to resurrect the process suffered a blow last month after unionists became outraged by a London court judgement which found that former members of the Provisional IRA and other Sinn Fein supporters could not be pursued for conflict actions before 1998, due to letters they had received from the British government.
Loyalists this week warned they are “struggling to keep a lid on things” amid a perception in their community that unionist paramilitaries still face potential prosecution, while former Provisional IRA figures are enjoying an effective amnesty.
Mr Robinson last month threatened to collapse the political institutions in the north of Ireland over the issuance of the letters, which he said unionists had been entirely unaware of. Sinn Fein has insisted both of the main unionist parties knew of the ‘administrative scheme’ to deal with outstanding prosecutions, but had not objected to it until it became public.
Speaking from Washington, where he met with several prominent US politicians, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the British government was now showing signs of ‘undermining’ the peace process. He warned that it was moving to renege on the 2001 Weston Park agreement in which it had agreed to resolve the issues surrounding those ‘on the run’ from prosecution (OTRs).
He also said the British government had pointedly failed to back the Haass draft proposals on the past, which Sinn Fein had endorsed.
“The Haass proposals on dealing with legacy issues were a compromise that offered the best hope for bringing closure to victims and families,” Mr Adams said, “and of removing this divisive issue from the political agenda.”
Pointing to comments made last week by British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers that the OTRs scheme was “over” and that republicans facing prosecution would be arrested and charged whether they had a letter or not, Mr Adams said the British government had adopted a ‘negative, partisan and biased’ position that ignores the violence of the British state and of the unionist parties and paramilitary organisations.
He said this was a “one-sided unionist narrative of the conflict”.
Last week, Mrs Villiers insisted that no more letters would be issued, and that six applications for clarification which had been under review had been thrown out. She said the OTR scheme was now “finished” and that there was no need to rescind any letters as they had been merely a “statement of fact” at a particular time.
“I am determined to provide that clarity to make sure that people understand the nature of the letters and that no one believes they can rely on them as an immunity because that is not what they confer,” she said.