By Michael Smith

Although his recent profile in the Sunday Business Post of potential President Hillary Clinton was entirely uncritical, in fact the apogee of Niall O’Dowd’s insatiable need to ingratiate himself with the Clintons was on the eve of St Patrick’s day.  It was then the Irish Voice publisher inducted Hillary Clinton into his partly self-serving Irish America Hall of Fame, an excruciating event that exquisitely encapsulates the difference between Ireland (which recoils from Halls of Fame) and the US (which can’t get enough Halls/ Fame/ Halls of Fame).

“Hillary Clinton played”, averred the man who always finds a way to put Irish next to America, “a leading role in creating the links between the White House and leaders on the ground that would become so important during crunch time when negotiations came”.  However, Trina Vargo, former peace-protagonist, foreign policy advisor to the late Senator Ted Kennedy and scathing O’Dowd antagonist, is sceptical: “That’s as specific as he can get, and as non-specific as he has to be, because there’s no there there”.

The official US view of Ireland is romanticised, so small emblematic things like tea are afforded more than their due space in a way they would never be in, for example, the official take on Israel. Ireland and tea have Clinton history.  During Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president, her primary opponent, Barack Obama, meanly disdained her as having merely “had tea with” world leaders as first lady. Her husband bounced to her defence as “a peacemaker, not a tea maker”.

Clinton nodded to that history as she was feted by O’Dowd and the usual assemblage of Irish and Irish-American power hawks at dinner in Manhattan. She emphasised the importance of tea – classically steeped and shared by women whose embrace of peace accords, she said, was vital to their evolution.

She has said: “I remember a meeting that I pulled together in Belfast, in the town hall there [in fact it seems to have been in a café on the Ormeau Road], bringing together for the first time Catholics and Protestants from both traditions, having them sitting a room where they had never been before with each other because they don’t go to school together, they don’t live together and it was only in large measure because I really asked them to come that they were there. I wasn’t sure it was going to be very successful and finally a Catholic woman on one side of the table said, ‘You know, every time my husband leaves for work in the morning I worry he won’t come home at night’. And then a Protestant woman on the other side said, ‘Every time my son tries to go out at night I worry he won’t come home again’. And suddenly instead of seeing each other as caricatures and stereotypes they saw each other as human beings and the slow, hard work of peace-making could move forward”.

Others, including the Belfast Telegraph at the time, say the meeting was stilted, overrun with secret-service operatives; and that far from its being their ‘first time” the protagonists at the tea were in fact ‘pre-networked’.

A recent discussion of the speeches at O’Dowd’s dinner on his television show culminated in Vincent Browne’s conclusion that Hillary was “telling porkies”.

Moving (largely) beyond metaphor, Clinton stopped well short of depicting herself as instrumental to the Good Friday Agreement that President Clinton brokered in 1998, but said her outreach to women in Belfast during that period had played a critical role. “You cannot bring peace to people just by signing an agreement”, Mrs Clinton told the St Patrick’s weekend dinner. “In fact, most peace agreements don’t last. There’s been some very important work done in recent years that – where women are involved, and therefore where the work of peace permeates down to the kitchen table, to the backyard, to the neighborhood, around cups of tea – there’s a much better chance the agreement will hold”.

Clinton, Women, Tea
Clinton, Women, Tea

During the Presidential election in 2008 uxorious Bill Clinton, who eschewed tea imagery, had withdrawn from a 10th anniversary commemoration to be held in Belfast, inflaming intrigue and tension between Mrs Clinton and her opponent for the Democratic nomination, fresh-faced Barack Obama, over her experience in foreign policy matters. Clinton claimed that, unlike Barack Obama, she and likely Republican nominee John McCain had “cross[ed] the commander-in-chief threshold”.

Northern Ireland had become one arena of an increasingly acrimonious debate between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton about her experience, sparked when Mrs Clinton ran a campaign advertisement which left tea entirely to one side to ask tendentiously who would be better equipped to answer an emergency call to the White House at 3 a.m. But we should not inflate our importance: other arenas included Bosnia, Rwanda and China.

On the campaign trail, Clinton had on several occasions said she “helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland” and certainly she had visited the area seven times between 1995 and 2004 – five times as first lady. Of course, “helped” is a fairly anodyne claim and in an interview with National Public Radio she went a step further, declaiming that the role she played was “instrumental” in ending the decades-long conflict there between Catholics and Protestants.

The Obama campaign accused Mrs Clinton of exaggerating her specific role and general experience. A policy memorandum written by Greg Craig, a well-placed foreign policy adviser to Mr Obama complained: “It is a gross overstatement of the facts for her to claim even partial credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland”. Though Mrs Clinton globe-trotted as first lady and had some contact with Irish women’s groups, he added, “at no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that produced the peace”.

Visiting the United States around that time Bertie Ahern, who might be expected to know but who might also be unreliable  ventured that Mrs Clinton had been “hugely helpful” in the peace process, but he pulled up short of crediting her with a central role in the process.

“She was the first lady of the United States, not a party leader in Northern Ireland,” undisgraced Mr Ahern told the Scranton Times-Tribune. “No one would expect her to get into the nitty-gritty of the process”. But, he added: “any fair observer would find that both Hillary and Bill Clinton made peace in Ireland a priority while they were in the White House and after”.

Congressman Peter King – a New York Republican – recalls one occasion in Washington when he was summoned to meet the president for what he thought would be a conversation about domestic politics. Instead, he found the Clintons shooting the breeze with Gerry Adams about the decommissioning of weapons, then one of the main obstacles in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. Senator George Mitchell Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy for Northern Ireland (1995–2001) told the Chicago Tribune that the first lady’s visits were “very helpful” and that her work with women was a “significant factor” in contributing to the success of the process. On the other hand David Trimble considered it “a wee bit silly” for Mrs Clinton to claim an important role: “I don’t want to rain on the thing for her,” he said in an empathetic interview with the Daily Telegraph, “…but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player”. That was the “the sort of thing people put in their canvassing leaflets”.

Steven King, a negotiator Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party has even maintained that Mrs Clinton was “a cheerleader for the Irish republican side of the argument”.

On the other hand, confirming the unsurprising partisanship on the issue Gerry  Adams has said Lord Trimble’s panorama was “not true”. In an interview with the Irish Times a decade ago, he said Mrs Clinton had “played an important role in the peace process”,  an assessment that resonated for John Hume, then leader of the SDLP who generously described her role as “pivotal”. He expanded: “I can state from first-hand experience that she played a positive role for over a decade in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland”, and even posted a statement on Hillary Clinton’s website. “In private she made countless calls and contacts, speaking to leaders and opinion makers on all sides, urging them to keep moving forward”.

Contrariwise, one of Hume’s aides, Conall McDevitt –  insouciantly showing why the peace process really did need to have more women involved – opined that Clinton was active “in a classic woman politicky sort of way”. Even worse: “The road to peace was carefully documented, and she wasn’t on it”, according to Brian Feeney, a history lecturer and former leading Belfast SDLP activist.

Much of this can be put down to personal bias. Trina Vargo, admittedly an O’Dowd sceptic, looks to the more definitive record. For example in 1997 Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery wrote the first detailed book on the US role in Northern Ireland. Vargo notes: “As O’Dowd was one of O’Clery’s primary sources, one would think that if the First Lady had played any significant role, he would have credited her, as would anyone else O’Clery interviewed. But in O’Clery’s book Hillary Clinton is mentioned five times but there are no references to her playing any role, she is referred to merely as accompanying her husband”.

Even more persuasively Vargo goes on: “Most tellingly, if her contributions to the Northern Ireland peace process were so significant, why didn’t she mention that herself in her 2003 book ‘Living History’? In the 500-page autobiography she mentions Northern Ireland on several occasions but never suggests she played an instrumental role in ending the conflict. As Maureen Dowd [as a woman, and one of Irish extraction, someone who should understand tea] wrote in the New York Times in 2008, “Having a first lady tea in Belfast is not equivalent to bringing peace to Northern Ireland”.


In truth, from the US angle the key was the State Department fronted of course by Presidential appointees. While historically it had been unwilling to challenge British policy on Northern Ireland it was in Bill Clinton’s time represented by National Security Adviser Tony Lake and his deputy, Nancy Soderberg – a former colleague of Vargo in Ted Kennedy’s office. These were certainly people willing to consider a new approach to Northern Ireland, working on crucial progress established in dialogues between Adams and Hume.

Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith too was prepared to challenge the State Department to support a visa for Adams. Vargo noted some years ago (perhaps at a time when she was more neutral on the ubiquitous Niall O’Dowd): “In mid-July [2004], O’Dowd and the small group he’d been working with – former Congressman Bruce Morrison, businessman Bill Flynn and quiet philanthropist Chuck Feeney – headed to Belfast in advance of a special Sinn Féin conference at which Sinn Féin would respond to the Joint Declaration. O’Dowd told me of various options Sinn Féin was considering and he wanted to know how the US would react to them. After discussing the options with Soderberg, she wanted me to tell O’Dowd that Sinn Fein’s response needed to reflect a philosophical rejection of violence and that any mention of a limited time-frame for a cease-fire would not be acceptable. A week later, O’Dowd rang from Belfast where he had met with Adams. He was optimistic that the upcoming Sinn Féin announcement would not refer to a time limited cease-fire. There had apparently been discussion of a three-month ceasefire but it was made clear that that would not cut it in the US”.

A couple of weeks later the IRA announced a permanent cease-fire.

If we seek US heroes of the peace process we might seek them in this vignette. Hillary’s heroism is another country. •