Obama’s message for Northern Ireland

March 23, 2015

Belfast Telegraph columnist Eamonn McCann asks why the Obama White House is pushing cuts in Northern Ireland--and why political leaders there are letting it happen.

IT SEEMS that the White House canceled invitations to Northern political leaders to attend the recent St. Patrick's Day party as a sign of its disapproval of their failure to reach agreement on welfare reform.

The most remarkable aspect of this has been that--far from telling Obama to attend to the millions of Americans living on food stamps before pontificating on how an administration on the other side of the ocean should comport itself in such matters--the main parties have sucked it up and swallowed hard.

Obama's envoy to the north, Gary Hart, left no one in any doubt last week about the consequence of a failure to find a formula to allow the deal done at Stormont House to go ahead: the U.S. "urge[s] all parties to reach an understanding on the scope of the agreement as it applies to welfare payments...so that a successful series of meetings planned for St. Patrick's Day can go forward as planned in Washington."

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson tweeted: "White House agree priority is to maintain momentum in finding a resolution to welfare issue. Best to be in Northern Ireland dealing with it."

Obama administration envoy Gary Hart
Obama administration envoy Gary Hart (Italian Embassy)

Not long ago, references were commonplace to "Tory cuts," "Treasury cuts" and "British Government cuts," Sinn Fein in particular complaining about Westminster constraint on economic policy decisions.

But the Americans warning the North's elected representatives that if they didn't shape up, they'd be put on the naughty step until they learn to do what they're told on benefits was not anticipated.

The role of U.S. administrations in pressing for compromise on issues directly to do with the conflict was, rightly or wrongly, accepted by a majority here as a necessary means of coaxing political groups with paramilitary wings to have their campaigns of violence called off. But it's only become evident in recent days that the remit of Washington extends to welfare reform.

IT OBVIOUSLY didn't occur to any local party to tell Obama to butt out and look after the millions of Americans living on food stamps before coming over high and mighty about benefits here which, whatever their inadequacy, are considerably better than in his own neck of the woods.

The U.S. role in securing the fitful peace which we now enjoy is seen by some as providing justification for its wider intervention now. True, actions by the Clinton and subsequent administrations did facilitate republicans towards acceptance of an arrangement which, in contradiction of the war aim proclaimed throughout the Troubles, left Northern Ireland within the UK.

But much the most powerful impulse towards the arrangement came from the unwillingness of the Catholic section of the working class to back a war for a united Ireland if this meant more or less permanent hostility between the two communities, and the parallel unwillingness of their Protestant counterparts to endorse paramilitary violence to keep Catholics out of government.

The Northern peace process was always a bottom-up affair to a much greater extent than is acknowledged in the official narrative.

Anyone who has ever stood on the platform at a protest rally against the latest atrocity--usually organized by the unions--will know that such initiatives were, at the very least, significant. But as ever, the masses have been written out of history.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to downgrade the overarching importance of communal solidarity and action. But it doesn't make sense, either, to ignore other perspectives.

Last Friday's strike and rallies against redundancies, involving the cancellation of trains and buses between the two biggest cities on the island, went entirely unmentioned on RTE's main evening news.

Meanwhile, the proposed public-sector job cuts go ahead, with the semi-myth of "voluntary redundancy" maintained. Typically, the threat of a jobs cull is likely to unsettle an already demoralized workforce.

The most common explanation of readiness to take redundancy has not been, "Terrific, give me the money," but, "There's no future here, I'm off."

Others will be told that their job is safe, but that as a result of reorganization resulting from the decimation of the workforce, it's been shifted from, say, Coleraine to Belfast or Jordanstown.

On the welfare front, it seems at the time of writing that the relatively narrow gap between the two main parties can be bridged in a way that allows each to claim vindication.

Too late for a ticket of entry to the Washington shindig. But another sweet foreign policy success for the White House, if a bitter defeat for those at the receiving end here.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph.

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