By Steven McCaffery
UNITED States Vice President Joe Biden has taken on a new role supporting the Northern Ireland peace process in response to the administration’s concerns over growing tensions, a leading US diplomat has revealed.
Barbara Stephenson, who is Chargé d’Affaires at the American Embassy in London and a former US Consul General in Belfast, said widespread violence over flying the Union flag caused Washington to fear the process “wasn’t as solid as we hoped”.
She told The Detail that after months of internal debate over how best to react, President Barack Obama’s government is “upping” its support for the peace process.
President Bill Clinton brought the peace process into the White House in the 1990s, but it moved to the US State Department under George W Bush, though Vice President Biden’s new role brings it back to the heart of government – a move which follows a turbulent 12 months in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Stephenson said: “There’s been a question we’ve been wrestling with since back when we started to get pretty worried in the January/February timeframe, you know, would it be useful for us to have somebody who was a point person in the US government?
“We’ve thought an envoy was more than we need to do, because that would signal that we believe there is more of a crisis than we believe that there is.
“But at the same time perhaps a point of contact would be useful, some place that’s the focal point.
“So this conversation has been going on now for several months, and the Vice President, with staff around him who are very knowledgeable about the Northern Ireland peace process, said, `You know what, why don’t I play that role?’.”
The senior diplomat was speaking during a visit to Belfast, where between 2001-04 as US Consul General she helped the process of building support for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, but also witnessed a collapse of the Stormont power-sharing government.
She said the US was heartened by the announcement in May that the current Northern Ireland political leaders, First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, had agreed a package of measures to tackle sectarian divisions between Protestants and Catholics.
But she said the crisis that erupted following the decision to restrict the flying of the British flag at Belfast City Hall last December, and which raged for months, caused major concern in Washington.
“There was definitely concern in the dark of the winter this year,” she said.
“I mean after the flag protests went on as long as they did and we started to see an impact on businesses in downtown Belfast and even the idea of whether people thought this was a good place to come on their holidays and to visit, so we were concerned.
“And people we had long standing relationships with said `You know, a couple more shocks and we could be in trouble’.
“So, I who had for at least ten years been there saying there’s only one direction of travel possible for Northern Ireland and that’s away from a troubled past and toward a better future, I had to say `you know if you poked me at that right now, I don’t think I could say that with the same kind of conviction. I think that this is in trouble and that it’s like a bicycle, if it doesn’t keep moving forward, it may be falling over’.”
She added: “The Northern Ireland example is such a beacon – so the idea that you might lose this – you know, you can’t.
“It has to continue to succeed.”
She said the US was keen to bolster the peace process and “see it through”.
“And I think that is probably something you would want to read into, why was it the Vice President.
“There is real interest in the White House in trying to see this through and provide the support we need, so that, you know, we’re all confident that a year from now that we’re in a better place.”
She said Vice President Biden was ready to support all-party talks that are set to get under way at Stormont in September to tackle divisions over flags, parades and the fallout from decades of conflict.
She stressed that the talks process was being led by the Northern Ireland Executive and indicated any support role from the US would depend on Stormont leaders.
The talks are to be chaired by former US government envoy Richard Haass, who was first revealed as the Stormont parties’ top target for the job in a report by The Detail available here.
But Mrs Stephenson said of the wider role of Vice President Biden: “To read into it continued support for the peace process, an upping of that, is absolutely right, and a determination to support both the elected leadership, as well as people giving voice to their aspiration – all of that would be where we are.”
The US decision to take action to bolster the peace process coincidentally comes after a former White House aide from the Clinton era, Nancy Soderberg, also voiced concerns on the pace of change in a previous article on The Detail here.
Barbara Stephenson said the US government believed the Northern Ireland experience is of value in tackling violence in other parts of the globe.
“So this is a very precious thing. So I think what you just see is a concern from the Winter that maybe this wasn’t as solid as we hoped, and then a determination to try to be there to see it through.”
She said the fresh violence and political tensions that have emerged over parades this summer are of further concern, but welcomed that the politicians had already published the Stormont `Building a United Community’ strategy and were now looking forward to negotiations in the Autumn.
“When there is violence we worry. Every July is a fraught time here,” she said.
“All of those images take us away from where we’re trying to go, which is convincing people that Northern Ireland is a great place to invest, convincing people that Northern Ireland is a great place to raise your family and plan a future.
“So those disturb us every time.
“I think the concern though is less now than it would have been in January/February, because you have seen the political leadership come out with `Building a United Community’, as well as the effort to reach out and recruit an independent international chair for the all-party talks to say `we are now going to make a renewed effort between now and Christmas to solve some of the hardest issues before us, which are the past, parades and flags’.
“There is new energy in here – so if you go back to my bicycle metaphor, it’s got some momentum again.”
Asked whether it would be sufficient to secure progress in the Haass talks, or whether a deal was essential, she added: “Well, let’s go back to the bicycle, progress would at least keep some momentum going but the faster the bicycle’s moving…
“And a deal – wouldn’t that be great to have something that sort of settles this – but I don’t know how quickly that will come.”
© The Detail 2013