Bill Clinton in Belfast earlier this week with Sinn Féin North leader, Michelle O’Neill
By Ray O’Hanlon
Bill Clinton was in Downing Street Thursday discussing Northern Ireland.
It might have been 1997.
But it’s 2017 and the former president, who broke the mold on U.S. involvement in Ireland’s historical woes, was discussing the North political impasse with Theresa May, not Tony Blair.
Prior to his London visit, Clinton was in Dublin to receive an honorary degree after which he traveled to Belfast to meet with the main party leaders locked in the so far unsuccessful talks to restore the power sharing Executive.
If a casual observer took the view that Clinton was walking and talking like a U.S. envoy to the North peace process, he or she would be forgiven.
But there is no U.S. envoy, not since Gary Hart took his leave of the position on the day that President Donald Trump was inaugurated.
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has indicated that the North posting is one of a number of envoy positions he wants to see scrapped by the State Department.
That said, and amid calls from more than thirty members of Congress, led by Congressman Richard Neal, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, that the north envoy job should be retained, President Trump indicated to Rep. Neal in the waning days of September that he would move to fill the post.
Nothing has happened since however, at least publicly.
So in the presence of a letter from Secretary Tillerson indicating the North job’s elimination, and the absence of any overt White House move to counteract this, former president Clinton has stepped into the breach.
Not as an envoy in the official sense, but as a private citizen and former president.
It’s unclear what the White house and State Department think of this.
It’s unclear whether they are even aware of Clinton’s intervention.
It’s unclear that they might even much care.
Regardless, Clinton sat down with British Prime minister Theresa May for almost an hour in Downing Street.
May tweeted after the get together that she had a cup of coffee with Clinton at the meeting “where we discussed the situation in Northern Ireland.”
Prior to the meeting, May’s official spokesman said: "He (Clinton) and the PM wanted to take this opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland and also the ongoing partnership between the government and the Clinton Health Access Initiative's work to lower the cost of HIV/Aids treatment worldwide."
The spokesman, according to reports, made it clear that Mr. Clinton had not been used by the British government to deliver a message on behalf of the government to the North parties.
Bill Clinton, given his track record on Northern Ireland, has his own message to deliver no matter what any government thinks.
And it would presumably dovetail with any message from an official U.S. envoy, if one existed.
One does not currently exist in part due to a letter from Secretary of State Tillerson some weeks ago to Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee.
In the letter, Tillerson urged that the role of “Personal Representative for Northern Ireland Issues” be “retired”.
Tillerson wrote Tennessee’s Corker - lately embroiled in a very public spat with President Trump - that “the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been implemented with a devolved national assembly in Belfast now in place.”
“Legacy and future responsibilities” for Northern Ireland would be assigned to the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs and the budget of $50,000 (€42,000) supporting the Northern Ireland envoy role would be realigned within that bureau.
Clearly, given the state of political affairs in Belfast right now, Secretary Tillerson’s letter is in need of a little revision.