Shadow Government

Surprised by Bush’s Northern Ireland intervention? Don’t be.

After a fairly quiet year of retirement, former President Bush was back in the news this week after being asked to assist the Obama administration in Northern Ireland. This intervention may have surprised many of the president’s critics, but not those of us who had worked with President Bush on this issue. President Bush was ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

After a fairly quiet year of retirement, former President Bush was back in the news this week after being asked to assist the Obama administration in Northern Ireland. This intervention may have surprised many of the president’s critics, but not those of us who had worked with President Bush on this issue.

President Bush was heavily involved in the details of the peace process, knowing not only the major actors like John Hume, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and of course Gerry Adams, but also the relatively less powerful political leaders from the other parties in the North. 

In the annual St. Patrick’s Day ritual at the White House that came to be known as the "stations of the cross," the president would meet in turn with the leadership of each party as he made his way around the room.  He had mastered the alphabet soup of acronyms designating the myriad political parties, and would discuss with each group its political prospects and major challenges. 

All relatively minor stuff, critics might sniff. But this was more than just the nuts-and-bolts responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. These moments revealed the president’s deep respect for the everyday political courage and physical bravery of these men and women who risked their lives in the cause of peace. 

This was most clearly demonstrated when I invited the McCartney family to the White House for the St. Patrick’s Day that immediately followed the brutal murder of their brother, Robert, by IRA thugs outside a Belfast pub. The president was deeply moved by their story and listened with compassion to the hardship they had suffered and their quest for justice (a quest that sadly remains unfulfilled to this day).

This was the same president who would subsequently overrule his NSC staff in late 2006 when he believed that it would enhance the chances for peace if Gerry Adams was allowed to visit the United States, a policy I supported because Adams had fulfilled his promise to move his constituency to support the rule of law. The decision also showed that Bush would reflexively favor no particular religious, ethnic, or political group (even when it might have been advantageous to do so for domestic political reasons). What mattered most was advancing the cause of peace.

It is therefore no surprise that the Obama administration has reached out to the former president for his assistance. And the Bush’s prompt assistance should remind everyone that the Northern Ireland peace process has been a bipartisan effort for decades, and the better for it. 

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