Prominent Irish Historian: Clinton Is "Silly" To Say She Was Instrumental in Peace Accords

| Mon Apr. 14, 2008 4:17 PM EDT

Last week, Hillary Clinton released a statement celebrating the tenth anniversary of the historic Good Friday Agreement that led to peace in Northern Ireland. She noted,

Ultimately, the real credit for peace can only go to the brave people of Northern Ireland, as well as the leaders of Ireland and the U.K. But I also know that helping to advance the peace process and to achieve the Good Friday Agreement is one of my husband's proudest accomplishments as President. And I too am proud to have played a role in that effort.

The statement--and Clinton's assertion that she had been part of the peace process--did not draw much media notice, a sign that her Irish troubles might have eased. Last month, the Barack Obama campaign had challenged her claim to have "helped to bring peace to Northern Island." And that triggered a transatlantic tempest. David Trimble, the former First Minister of the Northern Ireland, called Clinton "a wee bit silly" for claiming to have been a figure of an importance in the peace process:

She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don't want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.

But then Clinton's campaign posted on its website a statement from John Hume, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Trimble, in which Hume declared: "I can state from firsthand experience that she played a positive role for over a decade in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland." And Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told the Irish Times that Clinton played an important role in the peace process. I met the senator on many occasions....I always found her to be extremely well-informed on the issues."

These endorsements from Hume and Adams did not fully support the claims from Clinton and her camp that she had been a significant participant in the Irish peace process. On NPR, she had said, "I wasn't sitting at the negotiating table, but the role I played was instrumental." And appearing on CNN on March 4, Terry McAuliffe, her campaign chairman, had said, "We would not have peace today had it not [been] for Hillary's hard work in Northern Ireland." Still, Hume's and Adams' statements did somewhat counter Trimble's dismissive remarks. And the campaign flare-up flared down.

But what was the truth? Had Clinton been instrumental? Was McAuliffe correct to say Northern Ireland would today be a bloody landscape had it not been for Clinton? Looking for an expert on the Irish peace process, I contacted Paul Bew. He is a prominent--perhaps the most prominent--historian of Northern Ireland. A professor at Queen's University Belfast, Bew last year published Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, a much-acclaimed work, which is part of the Oxford University Press's Modern Europe series. He once was an adviser to Trimble, and he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2007, in recognition of his own contributions to the Good Friday Agreement.

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When I asked Bew about Clinton's claim, he chuckled and replied: "There is a simple point to be made." He referred me to a new book by Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Powell was chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his book, which has been a sensation in England, is an insider's account of the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Look at the index of this book for "Hillary Clinton," Bew told me. There is, he said, "only one reference to Hillary Clinton." Bew was right about that. That one citation refers the reader to a tangential anecdote in which Powell mistakes a female Secret Service agent assigned to First Lady Clinton for a friend (Nancy Soderberg, a national security aide in the Clinton White House) and cheekily asks for a kiss. "That's it," Bew said. "The only reference to Hillary Clinton in this detailed blow-by-blow account. This is more telling than any other particular point....It is very revealing."

Powell's book aside, I asked Bew, whose own book covers the Irish peace accords (and who also published a collection of his real-time journalistic accounts of the Good Friday Agreement), how he assessed Clinton's claim to have been "instrumental" in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. "She just was not there," he said. "Calling her instrumental is silly....I can't think of anything to be said for the case that she had a major role."

For the moment, this campaign controversy appears to be done. But if Clinton's Irish troubles return, perhaps the definitive--and last--word can go to the guys who wrote the books.