The George W. Bush administration’s intervention in Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2007 was decisive and remains undervalued and misunderstood. Throughout this time the US State Department determined American involvement in the region with responsibility for strategy falling to two successive directors of the Policy Planning Staff: Richard Haass and Mitchell Reiss. This essay demonstrates how the sources and operations of these men’s decision-making authority enabled the US to intercede as a third-party actor with the results being pivotal to the restoration of devolution in May 2007. State Department control of US involvement in Northern Ireland points to a manner of US intervention that I posit as assertive unilateralism.

On Monday 16 June 2008 President George W. Bush visited Northern Ireland. US government interest in the region had come a long way in seven short years. Although George W. Bush was content to associate himself with the Northern Ireland peace process, the foreign policy priorities of his administration were focused on other parts of the world. After meeting US National Security Adviser (NSA) Condoleezza Rice in early 2001, NI Secretary of State Mo Mowlam concluded the new regime in Washington was largely indifferent to the region (Sanders 2019: 263, Clancy 2013: 179 and Dumbrell 2006: 359). But as American overseas policy in the post-Cold War period has shown, a strategy of detachment can be difficult to maintain (Dumbrell 2006: 361). Pressure for US re-engagement in Northern Ireland emerged by the spring of 2001 and gained momentum by the summer. Subsequent US intercession was, I show, pivotal to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive on 8 May 2007.

This article examines the international dimension of the peace process and explains how the leadership of a small sub-unit within the US State Department – the Policy Planning Staff (S/P) – played a decisive role in leading successful American intervention into one of the most intractable and stalled peace processes in the world: Northern Ireland (NI) from 2001 to 2007. Some scholars caution against according too much significance to the role played by external forces in NI. Dixon claims more emphasis should be placed on the internal and national dimensions rather than the international. He argues that British strategy in NI was ‘marked by tactical adjustments, with the international dimension having little impact on its trajectory’ (2006: 410, also see Dixon 2002: 106-108). English has pointed to a series of important political and military calculations by the IRA before their 1994 ceasefire that were made separate to the shifting geopolitical situation post-1989 (2012: 303-315). Clancy has also remarked that ‘the US experience [in NI] suggests that it cannot be unambiguously asserted that aligning international influence is an important “lesson” to be extracted from NI’ (2010(C): 23).

By examining original testimony from important political and diplomatic actors, many of whom have offered accounts from this period that hitherto have not been recorded, I contend that without the international dimension the restoration of devolution in May 2007 would have been more problematic. The role played by Senator George Mitchell in helping deliver the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) had already affirmed the importance of international influence on states transitioning from war to peace. Mitchell’s role in NI was very different to that of Richard Haass [1] and Mitchell Reiss [2]. Whereas these diplomats were autonomous instruments of State, former Senator Mitchell had no relationship with the department. Instead, he maintained a direct line of communication with President Clinton. The characteristics of the international dimension’s role in NI changed with George W. Bush’s election victory and particularly the terror attacks in September 2001. If the end of the Cold War made it possible for a third party like the US to play a more decisive role in NI (Cox 2006: 430, also see Cox 1997: 683-686), then the new administration in Washington and subsequent events of 9/11 I argue opened the door for that intervention to converge in the autonomous hands of the State Department’s Special Envoys.

In framing this argument, I build on a key part of Clancy’s work that addresses the significance of US involvement in the NI peace process. She argues that ‘US intervention has been neither uniformly destructive nor constructive, nor has it always been in alignment with UK and Irish preferences’ (Clancy 2013: 187). While concurring that US interest in NI from the 1990s to the early 2000s has infrequently caused consternation in London and Dublin, this article will make clear that American diplomacy when controlled and deployed by Haass and Reiss was undoubtedly constructive and that the envoys themselves became political players in this process. Both were appointed by US Secretary of State (SoS) Colin Powell and came to exercise significant political clout without any real presidential oversight. The Special Envoy’s personal directives resulted in the creation of new policy. Haass and Reiss would decide what was to be accomplished through their intercessions. Moreover, as Haass made clear to me, there ‘was no real micromanagement’ and the superiors at State ‘were happy to just be kept in the loop, basically happy that it was being handled’ (Richard Haass Interview with Author (IWA): 13/02/2018, also see Sanders 2019: 261-268, Clancy 2013: 182-184, 2010(A): 114, 2010(C): 17-18 & 2007: 162-173 and Dumbrell 2006: 360).

The George W. Bush administration did not have the same desire or need to intervene in NI as the one it replaced. The creation of a Special Envoy post in early 2001 was thus a new bureaucratic entity. Its terms of reference were completely different to the role George Mitchell occupied in the 1990s. While Mitchell made himself personally available to arbitrate NI political talks at moments of crisis, the subsequent administration was not inclined to follow this example. Moreover, this State-led involvement saw NI being handled differently within the department’s organisational structure. The region was treated as an anomalous entity within the department. It was, as Barbara Stephenson [3] asserted, ‘not how we usually do things’ (Barbara Stephenson, Interview with Author (IWA): 17/07/18). This remark was in reference to the unusual management of NI within State’s bureaucratic structure. Haass explained how it bestowed substantial authority on the Special Envoy:

Normally you had all sorts of competing jurisdictions, overlapping authorities. The entire interagency process is designed to be a kind of crosshatch of responsibilities, and in that process… everybody who needs to be involved gets involved and compromises are made. With Northern Ireland there were not overlapping jurisdictions essentially, there were not competing centres of authority. The Pentagon had no role, the NSC had very little interest. It was a degree of autonomy and concentration of authority (Richard Haass IWA: 20/02/2020).

SoS Colin Powell was sensitive to the domestic political connotations of the Special Envoy position and initially wanted to fill it with a prominent Foreign Service Officer (FSO). The fact the position was created at all is remarkable considering that it came only days after Powell abolished twenty-three of the fifty-five special envoy positions he had inherited. When it came to NI, a deal had been agreed within State that all briefings on the region destined for the Secretary’s desk had to come from the head of Policy Planning (A. Elizabeth Jones, Former US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, 2001 to 2005, IWA: 04/07/20). Haass, and subsequently Reiss, became what is referred within State as the NI “pile-driver”. Pile drivers were the US diplomats that were charged with representing and managing foreign policy for the US government in specific countries or regions around the world. Their remit was clear: to be responsible for channelling information to the ‘Secretary of State or… White House anytime we felt there was something that… needed to be engaged in at a higher level’ (Ibid.). Barbara Stephenson made clear the extent of Haass and Reiss’s authority within this new bureaucratic arrangement, stating that ‘while George Bush was supportive he was not the Ireland desk officer like Bill Clinton’ (Barbara Stephenson IWA: 24/06/20).

Richard Haass was announced as Director of Policy Planning (DPP) on 6 February 2001. On 15 March 2001 he added the NI Special Envoy responsibility to his brief. The selection of Haass to a high-profile State Department post contrasted with other administration appointments. He was a liberal New York republican and a diplomat, ‘who could use charm or aggression to achieve his objectives’ (Marsden 2006: 61). Haass had a good working relationship with SoS Powell, and also enjoyed a personal rapport with Condoleezza Rice. This allowed him to meet with the NSA on an informal basis and outside the bounds of the interagency process (Haass 2009: 4). This is another important example of how Haass, as head of S/P and Special Envoy, had access to key influencers within the federal government during this period. He came to the position without any personal interest in Irish affairs. The choice of someone of Haass’s calibre, however, with his profile and foreign-policy acumen, confirmed the administration was taking continuing US involvement in NI seriously. By early 2001 Haass was in charge of policy formulation and its implementation.

George W. Bush’s appointment of a Special Envoy was welcomed by all the main political parties in NI. This included the DUP who had condemned President Clinton’s role in the peace process, viewing it as unhelpful and tantamount to biased meddling. Its leader, Ian Paisley [4], talked about a ‘new era’ in relations with the US and declared, ‘gone are the days of the pro-republican Clinton administration which did so much to attempt to elevate terrorists into statesmen’ (Belfast Newsletter: 28/04/2001). Paisley’s then deputy, Peter Robinson [5], stated that although he had reservations about the continuing internationalization of NI’s political situation, preferring it to be kept as an internal UK matter, he was content with this form of US intercession because it was no longer the case that ‘you brought in somebody wearing shamrocks and carrying a shillelagh’ (Peter Robinson IWA: 23/10/2020). While Sinn Féin publicly welcomed continued American involvement in the peace process, the party was wary of how control of this foreign policy area had passed from an attentive White House to another federal bureaucratic entity. Conor Murphy, a senior Sinn Féin representative for several decades, stated:

The State Department is a long-lasting organ of the state. [Its approach towards Ireland] would have been very hand-in-glove with British policy… So, in some ways we would have had a sense the State Department was a tougher nut to crack in terms of the people and the policy (Conor Murphy IWA: 19/02/2021).

Haass arrived in NI as the post-GFA political process was in a perilous state. The fledgling Stormont administration collapsed on 1 July 2001 when unionist First Minister David Trimble resigned, blaming the IRA’s refusal to begin decommissioning. Amid this crisis, a curious event was to occur in South America, which would further complicate matters in NI. In August 2001 three suspected members of the Provisional IRA were detained by Colombian authorities as they were in transit from a demilitarized zone that had been ceded to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley were charged with training FARC guerrillas and travelling on false passports. The Colombian military alleged the men were ‘explosive experts’ (Belfast Newsletter: 14/08/2001, also see Rafter 2005: 232). It was subsequently revealed that both Monaghan and McCauley were known former IRA men with significant weaponry and engineering know-how, while Connolly was Sinn Féin’s liaison with the Castro regime in Cuba (Sanders 2019: 262). Logistical and ordnance assistance from the IRA to a US-designated terrorist organization placed Haass’s role as Special Envoy in the spotlight. His involvement in the peace process became significantly more active. He became the administration’s primary responder to this event. Addressing reporters at the State Department Haass stated, ‘my understanding is that [Connolly, Monaghan and McCauley] were not there vacationing… [the arrests] could have potentially serious consequences for the role of the US in the peace process’ (BBC News Online Archive 2001 – IRA warned about Colombia ‘links’) [6].

More generally, suggestion of an IRA / FARC association caused great alarm in Washington (Marsden 2006: 62, Clancy 2013: 180 & 2010(C): 9 and The Guardian: 19/08/2001). US intelligence assessments and Congressional investigations helped inform the administration’s response to the Colombia saga. In April 2002, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, held hearings on international terrorism and its links with the illicit drug trade in South America. During one session Hyde exclaimed that it was an ‘insult to our intelligence’ (Quoted in Dumbrell 2006: 362) to suggest that IRA members had been in Colombia in the summer of 2001 as eco-tourists. Haass also adopted a firmer line with Sinn Féin than they had hitherto experienced from a US administration. Seasoned political operatives in Sinn Féin had long calculated that widespread American interest in the peace process was nominal and sketchy at best. But, as English states, in this instance the ‘“goodies and baddies” in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) mattered, and the IRA seemed to be on the wrong side’ (Richard English interviewed by Marsden 2006: 63).

Because of this, the words of Haass and other prominent politicians in Washington were listened to carefully in the UK and Ireland. Events the following month increased the pressure on the republican movement. Some of the literature examining the consequences of 9/11 has sought to explain how the terror attacks initiated a sense of American insecurity and vulnerability (Ralph 2013: 1, Pauly Jr. 2010: 246-247, Leffler 2005: 406, Woodward 2003 and Daalder, Lindsay and Steinberg 2002: 2). The US response needed to match the scale of what Condoleezza Rice regarded as an “existential threat” to the US. This characterization of what was essentially a continuation of Al Qaeda terrorism is hyperbole. English has argued that there has been an exaggeration of this form of terrorist challenge and that 9/11 ‘formed part of a very long sequence of acts of jihadist political violence’ with many of these elements being nothing relatively new (2018: 82). But, with George W Bush declaring a GWOT, a line in the sand had been drawn. Sinn Féin and the IRA were not going to fall on the wrong side of this.

Under immense scrutiny following the attacks and struggling to repair the reputational damage caused by the Colombia arrests, the IRA announced their first acts of decommissioning on 23 October 2001 (Clancy 2013: 180, Cochrane 2007: 226-228, Marsden 2006: 63 and McInnes 2006: 164-165). The IRA had clearly moved out of self-interest and there was a desire within its leadership not to be viewed by an American audience in the same guise as Al Qaeda. It is important to note, however, that as early as December 2000 the IRA had publicly stated that, ‘we remain prepared to initiate a process which would completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use’ (IRA Statement on the Arms Issue, 5 December 2000) [7]. This was followed by electoral gains for Sinn Féin in the 2001 UK general and NI local council elections. These successes may have led Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and the party’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness [8] to realize the potential of their political momentum, both north and south of the border, and at the same time how an armed partisan militia in a post-conflict environment could be a political burden (English 2012: 336). Moreover, Moloney has asserted that by 1999 the leadership of the IRA army council had the ‘authority to begin decommissioning whenever it wished and didn’t need to call a special Convention to win approval’ (2007: 518). Decommissioning was clearly a process the republican movement was preparing for well before the September 11 attack. But what transpired following 9/11 demonstrated just how susceptible the republican movement was to sustained US diplomatic pressure via the operations of the Special Envoy (Lynch 2009: 76). I therefore reject Dumbrell’s premise that Haass ‘found it difficult to apply the “with-us-or-against-us”’ mantra of the administration’s 9/11 response (2006: 363).

As Haass became involved in the deepening political crisis in NI from 2001 to 2002 he increasingly found himself at odds with, or ahead of UK government policy. This caused problems for America’s principal ally when Haass sought to cultivate a relationship with the DUP leadership between 2002 and 2003. He engaged with senior party figures on a more regular basis than the British did at this time (Richard Haass IWA: 20/02/2020). This exasperated UK officials, who could not fathom a scenario where the post-GFA process survived without David Trimble and the pro-Good Friday Agreement Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) (Clancy 2007: 166). Mooted Assembly elections in 2003 were already causing the British government concern. Tony Blair, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) feared they would result in the elevation of the extremes to the head of their respective electoral blocs, and lead to a political ‘ice age’ of ‘five to ten years’ (Godson 2004: 761). This projected voting outcome proved accurate. The subsequent mood in 10 Downing Street was one of dejection, but Haass argued there was now a fresh opportunity to fully implement the GFA. He recalled a conversation with Tony Blair and the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern when he told both leaders, ‘I know this election may seem to you like a major setback… but in the long run this was necessary… This will actually give you more to work with’ (Richard Haass IWA: 13/02/2018).

On the back of the DUP supplanting the UUP in the November election, and encouraged by their more “moderate” wing, Haass was prepared to gamble on the perceived unionist hardliners moving towards accepting a form of power-sharing in NI (Clancy 2010(A): 129). Peter Robinson agrees with this analysis, stating that ‘the general principle that only Nixon could go to China applies to this case’ (Peter Robinson IWA: 23/10/2020). Robinson had already determined in early 2003, with the IRA refusing to enter into a meaningful decommissioning process and the pressure this placed on David Trimble to carry the unionist electorate, as well as the gains his party made in the 2001 elections, that the DUP would supplant the UUP as the voice of unionism. While Downing Street was clearly uneasy with this, they were even more uncomfortable with the US Special Envoy making clear his acceptance of this situation. Clancy has asked, given the importance of the alliance with the UK in the GWOT, ‘why didn’t the White House muzzle Haass?’ (2007: 169). While she rightly acknowledges the reason this did not happen was a result of the autonomous position Haass held within State, I contend this has not been fully appraised. The position of NI envoy paired with the role of DPP gave both Haass and Reiss the ultimate power to pursue their own policy preferences.

Haass remained actively engaged in the peace process for the next eighteen-months, and maintained the momentum of his form of third-party intervention. Paul Murphy, who by late 2002 had been appointed Secretary of State for NI, confirms this: ‘I virtually lived [with Haass] at Hillsborough Castle. He was hugely hands-on, and one of the cleverest diplomats I have ever experienced’ (Paul Murphy IWA: 12/07/2016). In October 2002, using very purposeful language, Haass said the GFA could not be fully implemented without the IRA disbanding, stating that ‘the IRA needs to give up any acts of violence. It needs to get rid of its arms. Essentially it needs to lose it paramilitary character’ (BBC News Online Archive 2002 – IRA must go out of business) [9]. Unionists were impressed by a diplomat of Haass’s stature making public statements that mirrored their core position. His toughened tone towards Sinn Féin was paired with an insight into unionism that was largely missing in Washington (Clancy 2007: 161 and Dumbrell 2006: 364). But, due to a lack of personal chemistry and growing impatience with Trimble, the Special Envoy’s relationship with the main unionist leader began to sour (Moloney 2008: 428). This coincided with an improving relationship between Richard Haass and Gerry Adams (Clancy 2010(A): 11).

By late 2002 and into early 2003 NI began to feature less in the work of the DPP. During this time Haass, and his officials in S/P that worked primarily on Middle East affairs, had begun to realize from their conversations with the Pentagon, National Security Council and the Vice-President’s office that war with Iraq was likely (Richard Haass IWA: 20/02/2020 and Haass 2009: 4). By the time he left State, Haass had made an indelible contribution to the NI peace process. His interventions served as the first indications of assertive unilateralism. American foreign policy towards the peace process was managed by a singular authority who acted without need to liaise with other federal bureaucracies or to secure the concurrent support of either the British or Irish governments. While his responsibilities as DPP had gradually drawn his focus to other international crises, the manner of Haass’s unilateral third-party engagement helped untangle a number of obstinate and protracted issues that were blighting the 1998 settlement. He had communicated the administration’s tough GWOT rhetoric to the republican movement and also made clear the political consequences of an indifferent response. This diplomatic weight, though not the only medium of pressure, was crucial in forcing the IRA to begin decommissioning in October 2001.

Haass’s replacement in December 2003 would leave with a more significant and greatly unappreciated legacy. If the stock in trade of the standard US diplomat is to urge caution when an administration intercedes too audaciously overseas (See Rockman 1981: 915), then Mitchell Reiss did not adhere to this guidance. As DPP he came to the Special Envoy position sensing there was an opportunity to adopt a more independent approach. Reiss was persuaded that the British and Irish governments were too accepting of the arguments put forward by the republican movement (Sanders 2019: 269). Along with his team at S/P and in Belfast, he was often frustrated by 10 Downing Street’s continued indulgence of Gerry Adams. These sentiments were now shared by figures inside the Irish government. A diplomatic cable sent by the US Ambassador in Dublin, James C. Kenny, to the State Department in June 2005 shed light on the extent of Irish irritations:

    1. (C) … Government of Ireland officials uniformly expressed concern that the UK’s political interest in showing progress might lead the UK to be too soft on Sinn Féin…
    2. (C) Government of Ireland concerns about UK “softness” represent a role reversal. Usually, it is the UK that is concerned Ireland will be too accommodating to Sinn Féin (US Embassy Diplomatic Cable to the State Department 1/06/2005 – Northern Ireland: Government of Ireland waiting for IRA response and committed to GFA) [10].

Reiss was determined that his intercession would not follow the British government’s example of handling Sinn Féin with kid gloves. Barbara Stephenson, who worked closely with the Special Envoy, asserts he was prepared to ignore British preferences and was able to repel the persuasiveness and effectiveness of the British Foreign Office and its embassy in Washington (Barbara Stephenson IWA: 24/06/2020). Reiss’s detractors within the British and Irish establishments criticised the forceful manner of his involvement in the peace process. For this reason, these actors preferred dealing with Richard Haass. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stated:

Richard Haass… was a cool, calm, calculating guy. Mitchell Reiss… was very head strong. Mitchell brought the hammer with him to meetings… That was part of the difficulty… Rubbing [Sinn Féin] up wrong was not the way around it. Mitchell Reiss was a hardliner… I was conscious that hardliners hadn’t got us anywhere for years (IWA: 12/01/2021).

Referring to Reiss as a “hardliner” is interesting considering the former Taoiseach’s hugely controversial and undisclosed plans to force the DUP into meaningful peace talks in 2006. Another diplomatic cable sent by James C. Kenny to the State Department in February 2006 revealed that in conversations with Reiss, Ahern was contemplating some form of reimposition of Articles 2 and 3 of Ireland’s constitution, which had claimed sovereignty over the entire island before being relinquished under the terms of the GFA. The cable stated:

    1. (C) The Taoiseach said that if the DUP did not engage in the process, he would consider giving a speech in which he reminded people that the Republic of Ireland had changed its constitution to relinquish its claim to Northern Ireland only on the basis of the promise of the Good Friday Agreement. If that promise is not met, he said, he would indicate that Ireland could consider its constitution again… The Taoiseach’s comment that he would consider suggesting Ireland could go back on that is stunning. He confided that he has already mentioned this scenario to [Tony] Blair (US Embassy Diplomatic Cable to the State Department 10/02/2006 – Government of Ireland thoughts on Peace Process and Saint Patrick’s Day) [11].

Restoring these constitutional articles would have been a retrograde step and it is unsurprising the American delegation was shocked at its very mention. The use of the term “hardliner”, however, to describe Reiss within the context of his Special Envoy role was also used by former US Congressman and prominent member of the Irish American caucus, James Walsh (IWA: 12/03/2021). Such statements fail to fully appreciate the critical role Reiss played in helping break the deadlock that had paralyzed Northern Ireland’s politics.

What differentiated Reiss even further from his predecessor was the importance he placed on building coalitions to effect US involvement in NI. Between 2003 and 2007 he did this with the Irish American lobby, members of Congress, and figures within the British and Irish governments. His diplomatic manner was less abrasive than his predecessor’s jarring style. While he adopted a measured approach when dealing with the peace process’s main players, Reiss’s tenure was marked by a testing relationship with certain figures from inside Tony Blair’s government. As I will reveal, many of these individuals, to their cost, underestimated his determination and strategic intellect. Sir David Manning, former UK ambassador in Washington from 2003 to 2007, compared Reiss with Mitchell, remarking that: ‘I think it’s a different sort of job by the time you get to Mitchell Reiss… But it’s not negotiating the outcomes in the way that I think it’s fair to say his predecessors would have done’ (David Manning (IWA: 06/04/2020).

George Mitchell’s role in the lead-up to the GFA was significant and his legacy is secure. The comparison with Reiss, however, is unfair as the context and mechanics of their respective diplomatic functions are entirely different. While neither of George W. Bush’s envoys acted as arbitrators within a formal talks process, both, and particularly Reiss’s contribution, were decisive. He pursued a policy in Ireland that sought to maximize the authority of his position and to make the greatest impact on the floundering peace process. This was evidenced most when Reiss communicated a clear-cut message to the republican movement that their endorsement of the police and criminal justice system in NI was a sine qua non of any powersharing deal unionists would agree to (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 12/07/2018, Clancy 2010(A): 149 & 2007: 172, Marsden 2006: 66, Frampton 2009: 176). Reiss knew how emotive the issue of support for and cooperation with the police was for nationalist / republican communities in NI. He was also aware that such a momentous step by their political leaders would act as the definitive metric unionists needed for judging Sinn Féin’s commitment to peace. Therefore, if Sinn Féin gave their official backing to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) then the ‘last great hurdle’ (US official familiar with Reiss’s strategy, quoted in Clancy 2007: 168) to restoration of the institutions would be removed. To this end, along with his Dublin ally, Irish justice minister Michael McDowell, Reiss sought to convince Peter Robinson that if republicans could be cajoled into the principles of quid pro quo and took this historic step, it would serve as the litmus test for judging their commitment to an exclusively democratic society (Clancy 2013: 185 & 2010(C): 14). The former Special Envoy explained the reasoning behind presenting this plan to the then DUP deputy leader:

With [Ian] Paisley you got the intangible: “We’ll know when it’s the right time, the dogs on the street will know” But that doesn’t do you any good in real negotiations. So, I asked Peter [Robinson] “what do you need Sinn Féin to say and do, and if they do these things are we done?” And Peter laid it out. And we started going down the check list. As we delivered each one I would remind Peter, “we’re closer” (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 27/04/2020).

Reiss and McDowell had an interesting relationship and formed a strong alliance over what they viewed the best way was to resolve the main difficulties in the peace process. Michael McDowell confirmed this and detailed the guarded nature of their dealings: ‘There was a back channel between the Department of Justice, including myself … and Reiss, which we did not draw to the attention of Bertie Ahern’ (Michael McDowell IWA: 28/10/2021). Both men had concluded that Sinn Féin seemed content to hold-off making concessions for as long as the peace process remained in flux.

This was intermixed with continuing IRA criminality and the British government’s tendency to ignore it. Peter Robinson, the DUP’s principal strategist, bought into Reiss’s logic. He asserted that his party ended up ‘believing it helped our argument as to why certain things had to be done because [Sinn Féin’s] bona fides were now in question’ (Peter Robinson IWA: 23/10/2020). Reiss’s strategy gained momentum by early 2005. He had already announced the manner of his intercession at the Leeds Castle negotiations in September 2004. Although these talks did not result in the restoration of devolution, notable progress was made on British demilitarization and there was marginal advancement on how IRA decommissioning should be completed (Sanders 2019: 264). Two subsequent events scuppered any possible breakthrough: the Northern Bank robbery on 20 December 2004 and the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast on 30 January 2005. The Northern Bank heist was the biggest in British and Irish history. A total of £26.5 million was stolen. Police intelligence pointed to the IRA as the culprits and implicated dozens of individuals, including senior IRA-personnel (Cochrane 2006: 87). The February 2005 report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) linked Sinn Féin to the raid, stating some of its members ‘are also senior members of the Provisional IRA’ and were involved in sanctioning the robbery (Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) Report 2005(A) [12]; also see Clancy 2013: 184, 2010(A): 147 & 2010(C): 14, Frampton 2009: 185 and Moloney 2008: 422-423).

The political ramifications of the heist were still reverberating when a brutal murder took place outside a Belfast city-centre pub. Thirty-two-year-old Robert McCartney, a father of two, was repeatedly stabbed following a melee at the bar. Afterwards those responsible for the murder went back into the building, locked the doors, disposed of CCTV footage, and oversaw a forensic clean-up operation of all evidence. Witnesses were also warned not to cooperate with the authorities. Once again, the resulting police investigation pointed to suspected IRA involvement (Cochrane 2006: 87 and Nag 2006: 701). Members of Sinn Féin were present on the evening of the murder, and the party subsequently suspended twelve of these individuals (Sanders 2019: 265). The IRA also took the unprecedented step of expelling three members linked to the murder and subsequent cover-up (Associated Press: 25/02/2005). The Independent Monitoring Commission’s May 2005 report concluded that though the act was not authorized by the Provisional IRA’s leadership, ‘those concerned may have believed they were acting at the direction of a local senior IRA member at the scene’ (IMC Report 2005(B)) [13].

The murder and the defiant response from Mr McCartney’s family made its way onto the pages of American daily newspapers. The Special Envoy’s response to these incidents centred on sending a clear message to the republican movement of how gravely the US administration viewed recent IRA conduct. Reiss and his FSOs, both within S/P and at the Belfast Consulate, were convinced that Sinn Féin’s continuing boycott of support for the police and judicial system in NI was a fundamental contradiction of the peace process. The challenge for Reiss was how he could harness the political pressure republicans were coming under to force a change in their stance. The impending St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington offered Reiss an opportunity to intensify his form of intervention. Firstly, he banned Sinn Féin members from fundraising during this week (New York Times: 12/03/2005). Moreover, on the Special Envoy’s advice, and to objections from London and Dublin, the White House excluded Gerry Adams from all official events and instead invited the four sisters and fiancée of Robert McCartney to meet with the president. This was an act of high political significance. Pictures of the family meeting with George W. Bush and their plea for his support in their campaign for justice were seen and heard around the world. While not all of NI’s political leaders were invited to the centrepiece events, including the Speaker’s lunch at Capitol Hill, the barring of the Sinn Féin leader caused the greatest stir.

As the week progressed the political ostracization and opprobrium of Adams continued (Sanders 2019: 265, Nag 2006: 701 and Cochrane 2006: 87-88). Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Congressman Peter King followed George W. Bush in refusing to meet Adams and chose instead to welcome the McCartney family to Washington. This was a highly symbolic repudiation of Irish republicanism. All these rebukes were noteworthy and some unprecedented, but it was the speech by John McCain at the annual American-Ireland Fund dinner that was most devastating for Gerry Adams. The Arizona Senator tore into the IRA, calling them a ‘bunch of cowards’ and no better than a ‘criminal syndicate that steals and murders to serve its members personal interests’ (Moloney 2008: 429). Bertie Ahern revealed that McCain had actually approached him at the beginning of the week to say he was going lambast Sinn Féin and the IRA. The former Irish premier asserted that McCain ‘had really made up his mind that he was going to go for [Sinn Féin] because he felt… they were betraying all that we were doing… He was far more wound up than I was’ (IWA: 12/01/2021). Reiss recalls sitting next to Sir David Manning at this event, with both men looking at each other in disbelief at what they were hearing:

It wasn’t just what McCain said, it was the response from the audience. This was an overwhelmingly sympathetic audience to Adams and Sinn Féin. The good and the great of Irish America. They interrupted McCain six times with spontaneous applause. Mitchell Reiss IWA: 27/04/2020).

The Irish American political establishment was aghast at the bank raid and McCartney murder. The entire week was a PR disaster for the republican movement (Cochrane 2007: 226). Sanders has asserted that ‘the loss of US fundraising privileges might have been a blow, but the loss of the party’s place at the top table in the US hit deeper’ (2019: 266). Gerry Adams even conceded Sinn Féin had been thrown ‘on the back foot’ (New York Times: 15/03/2005), which in turn seemed to accelerate the acceptance that the IRA needed to finally leave the stage.

Coalition building continued to be central to Reiss’s approach. Aware of the power this gave him to effect productive American involvement in the peace process, Reiss made this a key priority. It had also been a long-established practice of S/P to engage with non-governmental players during the embryonic stages of policy development (Miscamble 1992: 357). Irish America was a key constituent part of Reiss’s alliance. The Special Envoy had determined that if he could persuade the DUP to move beyond abstract demands to tangible examples of what they actually needed republicans to do, namely endorsement of the PSNI and verification from the IMC that the IRA’s criminal enterprises had ceased, then Irish America could be encouraged to lobby Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to embrace the new policing and judicial structures (Clancy 2013: 184 & 2010(A): 149). This pressure was clearly working. Reiss had secured private assurances from Congressional Democrats who were also close supporters of Sinn Féin, as well as from insurance magnate and long-time backer of the party, Bill Flynn, that they would support the Special Envoy’s approach, including fundraising restrictions (Clancy 2010(A): 169). If Haass’s post-9/11 interventions had unnerved the republican movement by overtly calling on the IRA to commence decommissioning immediately, then Reiss’s strategy had ultimately forced them into a corner and achieved what the British government and unionists had failed to do for a generation: precipitate an environment where the IRA would formally end its armed campaign (Cochrane 2007: 226).

Right up until a few days before the IRA made its historic move on decommissioning, Reiss defiantly stuck to his strategy of visa restrictions on certain Sinn Féin figures. Former US Congressman James Walsh, recorded in his diary part of a phone conversation with the Special Envoy on 20 September 2005:

Reiss: Adams requests that he be allowed to do fundraiser. Nobody thinks the time is right until decommissioning. I don’t think any fundraising should be allowed until after transparent decommissioning. After that they should be allowed… (James Walsh IWA: 12/03/21).

Back in Belfast three-weeks after his difficult US visit, Gerry Adams made a public plea for the IRA to decommission all its weapons and commit itself to purely democratic and peaceful means of pursuing Irish unity. On 28 August, 2005, the IRA ordered its volunteers “to dump arms” and to desist from any and all armed activities (Sanders 2019: 266, Moloney 2007: 558, Clancy 2007: 170 and Nag 2006: 702). This historic move by the IRA it was not yet the game-changer the peace process needed. There remained the substantial stumbling block of Sinn Féin’s refusal to endorse the PSNI. Consequently, the State Department’s fundraising visa restrictions continued. Despite this, Sinn Féin were intent on pursuing a strategy of delaying for as long as possible any move towards supporting the PSNI. In a speech in Toronto in November 2005, Adams explained that only when policing and justice powers were transferred from London to Belfast would his party consider making this momentous move (Clancy 2010(A): 161, Moloney 2008: 433 and Frampton 2009: 175).

Reiss could not accept this logic. When I questioned him on his tactics towards the republican movement at this time, he described this engagement: ‘I explained to [Sinn Féin’s leadership] there are consequences to certain actions and … inactions… Those aren’t threats… This is going to be US policy’ (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 12/07/2018). This affirms that the Special Envoys were now engaged as key political players in NI, rather than as third-party arbitrators. Reiss in particular strayed into political combat with Sinn Féin. This began in late 2005 when Gerry Adams sought to have visa restrictions revoked by reaching out directly to the party’s Irish American allies as well as to Jonathan Powell. The latter was particularly important. Over the previous eight years Adams and Powell had formed a rapport and the republican leader was prepared to make the most of this friendship. While Powell did persuade Prime Minister Blair to petition the White House to overrule State’s visa provisos. Although the petition failed, Reiss was left infuriated. A deliberate effort by the British to usurp his authority and undermine what was established US policy was something the Special Envoy would not forget (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 12/07/2018).

Reiss also had to deal with a diplomatic skirmish on another front as he became embroiled in several testy encounters with the republican leadership on the issue of support for the police. Gerry Adams was vocal in his dissatisfaction at Reiss’s control and implementation of US foreign policy towards the peace process. In one disparaging assessment he stated, ‘I don’t have high regard for Mitchell Reiss’s input into the process… if it is he who is advising the president, it’s very bad advice’ (BBC News Online Archive 2006 – Adams Criticises Bush’s NI envoy) [14]. By the summer of 2006, after Reiss had told a Congressional hearing that the main causal factor to the political impasse in NI lay with Sinn Féin’s refusal to endorse the PSNI (Testimony to Congress 2006), relations with Adams worsened. Then came Sinn Féin’s paid full-page advertisement on the op-ed section of the New York Times outlining their reasons for opposing the new NI police service (Schmitt 2008: 67 and Marsden 2006: 66). This drew an angry reproach from Reiss, who stated the advert contained ‘massive untruths’ (Frampton 2009: 175). Back in Dublin the Taoiseach’s office was becoming concerned at the Special Envoy’s approach towards the republican movement. The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was anxious about too much pressure being exerted on Sinn Féin and the IRA, and in conversations with Reiss tried to caution the Special Envoy on his strategy by telling him, ‘I understand the tough messages but at the same time look at the bigger picture’ (Bertie Ahern IWA: 12/01/2021). Not surprisingly, unionists in NI readily approved of Reiss imposing a harder line on republicans. Ruminating on this period, Ian Paisley described him as the ‘unionist batman’ (Ian Paisley IWA: 24/03/16). When responding to this accolade, Reiss dismissed any suggestion that his involvement was a one-sided assault on Sinn Féin, stating, ‘There was at least as many conversations with the Unionists to get them to be specific on what a deal would look like’ (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 12/07/2018).

Reiss weathered political attacks from the republican movement, but the efforts of certain British actors to circumvent him deserve deeper analysis. These attempts firmly counter Clancy’s contention the UK government was unwilling to implore the White House to rein-in the Special Envoys at vital junctures in the peace process (2010(A): 138). 10 Downing Street most certainly did. But the nature of envoy’s autonomous structure, the fact it was held by an influential State Department figure, and minimal presidential oversight of the application of US overseas strategy in NI meant these efforts were always in vain. That said, Reiss did come under substantial pressure from London, placing considerable strain on his relations with the principal British players. The Special Envoy’s FSOs had become increasingly irritated at Downing Street and the NIO’s unwillingness to challenge Sinn Féin on continuing IRA criminal activity (Clancy 2010(A): 144). This friction consequently afflicted NI Secretary of State Peter Hain and Reiss’s professional dealings. When I posited that his relationship with Hain had severely deteriorated, along with a quote from a US official who stated their rift became ‘nasty’ and that the British government ‘went after [you] harder than they went after Haass’ (Clancy 2010(A): 155 & 2007: 171, also see Sanders 2019: 269), Reiss gave this response:

I take that as a compliment. But… there is no person called “the British government” – we are talking about a couple of people. I know that [Jonathan Powell] was angry, and I know that they tried to go over my head to the White House… That was all very unfortunate. But sometimes this happens when situations get tense (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 12/07/2018).

Almost fifteen-years after their official working relationship ended, tensions remain between Reiss and Hain. The candour from both men when elucidating their experiences with one another reveals the scale of the rancour that existed between a British cabinet minister and an American diplomat at a time when the Anglo-American Special Relationship was experiencing a resurgence under the administrations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Although Hain does not recognize the “nasty” description, he nevertheless acknowledges Reiss’s operations in NI caused deep frustration within the NIO. Taking a direct swipe at the former Special Envoy, he stated: ‘If you’re not actually in the negotiating room, and you’re trying to be a player yourself rather than a supportive player then you can get your lines crossed. And that was what [Reiss] was doing’ (Peter Hain IWA: 18/03/2020).

This attack on Reiss is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, both Haass and Reiss, to varying extents, participated in different NI negotiations between 2001 and 2006. Moreover, Reiss, as the representative of US foreign policy vis-à-vis NI, was a particularly important player. This is confirmed above all else by the fact his work in formulating a strategy that required Sinn Féin’s endorsement of the PSNI before NI’s devolved government could be restored was eventually adopted by the British and Irish governments (Frampton 2009: 175). As his retrospective criticism continued, Hain’s most acerbic denunciation of Reiss was his accusation that there were times when ‘I thought [Reiss] was operating off-script, and particularly seemed to be not really in tune with what Dublin and London were trying to achieve’ (Peter Hain IWA: 18/03/2020).

I shared Hain’s damning analysis with Reiss. The former Special Envoy, though slightly irritated, and who had previously made clear to me that he was never impressed by Hain’s style, revealed the then NI Secretary was not always kept in the loop on his deliberate and at times discreet outreach in NI.

What Peter [Hain] doesn’t know… is that I did not take any decision without conferring very closely with both London and Dublin. But Peter wasn’t involved in those conversations. And I can understand him being upset at being cut-out, but I simply didn’t trust him as an interlocutor, I didn’t trust his judgement, I didn’t trust his ability to keep information confidential (Mitchell Reiss IWA: 27/04/2020).

When contemplating these verbal recriminations, it is Hain’s “off-script” charge that stands-out most. In many ways this comment is perceptive and indicative of Reiss’s ability as Special Envoy to gradually elevate the position to a greater degree of autonomy. Following three intensive days of talks at St Andrews, Scotland, in October 2006, the British and Irish governments, and NI’s two main political parties agreed to a process that would see devolution restored. A key piece of this complex political puzzle fell into place on 28 January 2007 when Sinn Féin members voted by an overwhelming majority to endorse the PSNI. Shortly after the autumn 2006 negotiations, when it was becoming clear Irish republicans were edging closer to this decision, Reiss, satisfied his approach was working, assessed the time was right to revise State’s visa policy. By early 2007, after almost six years, this level of State Department involvement in NI affairs was coming to an end. A managed third-party process, coordinated by the head of S/P and State FSOs, had achieved its objective.

In the post-Cold War unipolar structure, American primacy was at the core of George W. Bush’s political, military, economic and foreign policies (Sawycky 2010: 83 and Dumbrell 2009(C): 53). This was a vision where sovereignty became ‘absolute for America even as it becomes more conditional for countries that challenge its standards of internal and external behaviour’ (Ikenberry 2002: 44, also see Dobson & Marsh 2006: 213). This outlook was operationalized by the 11 September 2001 terror attacks (Dobson & Marsh 2006: 142, Anderson 2010: 56, Dumbrell 2006: 362, Parmar 2005: 218 and Dunn 2006: 5). The Bush Doctrine, as it became known, exalted the virtues of US supremacy and was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It came as no surprise that in this climate the White House became apathetic to NI affairs. The same would not be said for the State Department. What is remarkable about this diplomatic intercession is that it was successfully effected at a time when US foreign policy was pivoting towards a mainly, though not rigidly fixed, unilateralist position. State, and specifically two successive heads of S/P, applied the full weight of American diplomacy to help solve a seemingly intractable and entrenched political crisis in NI.

The means by which both Special Envoys interceded in NI challenges any notion that the 21st Century State Department lacks agility or is without initiative (Burns 2019: 105). Haass and Reiss brought independent thinking and innovation to policy formulation towards the peace process. There was, however, a clear dichotomy in the way their interventions affected NI. Haass’s impact was felt reactively. Following the Colombia arrests and the 9/11 attacks he delivered a robust and unambiguous message to Irish republicans that the US administration had zero tolerance for terrorism of any mould. This pressure was an important contributory factor in forcing the IRA to enter into a decommissioning process in October 2001. Reiss’s approach, on the other hand, was much more proactive. His actions were part of a deliberate strategy. He wanted his third-party intercession to achieve something meaningful in NI. His term as envoy reinforces the argument, against Clancy’s contention, that the ‘structural autonomy [of the Special Envoy position] is only part of the story’ (Clancy 2010(A): 168) when seeking to explain how the Special Envoys were able to pursue policies independent of British and Irish preferences. It is the whole story. Working closely with the DUP leadership, Reiss helped facilitate an environment for the unionist party to clarify tangible demands and gradually transform into agreement mode. He also pursued a course that accelerated Sinn Féin’s realization that their acceptance of policing was a non-negotiable precondition of any powersharing deal. This is what makes him such a vital player in the restoration of the GFA’s institutions in May 2007. By characterizing this form of American intervention as assertive unilateralism I have sought to show how the intercessions of Haass and Reiss not only advanced the peace process but were also specific examples of American diplomacy affecting progress in one of the most entrenched political stalemates of the 20th and early 21st centuries.


[1] Dr Richard Haass was born on 28 July 1951. A Rhodes Scholar, he holds a master’s and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University. From 1989 to 1993, he was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council. He served in the Departments of State from 1981 to 1985 and at the Pentagon from 1979 to 1980. Dr. Haass is the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013 he served as the chair of multiparty negotiations in Northern Ireland. From January 2001 to June 2003, Dr Haass was a principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell and was confirmed by the US Senate to hold the rank of ambassador.

[2] Dr Mitchell Reiss was born on 12 June 1957. He holds a D. Phil. from Oxford University and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. He currently serves as a member of the ‘Independent Reporting Commission’ in Northern Ireland. Dr. Reiss was a special assistant to National Security Advisor General Colin Powell from 1988 to 1989.  He was also a Guest Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 1992 to 1995, where he directed its Non-proliferation and Counterproliferation Projects.  He is the former president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia and served as Chief Negotiator in the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation. Dr Reiss was accorded the rank of ambassador in May 2004.

[3] Former American Consul General in Belfast from 2001 to 2004. She also served as US Ambassador to Panama, 2008 to 2010.

[4] Former Northern Ireland First Minister, 2007 to 2008, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, 1971 to 2008. He also served as Member of Parliament for North Antrim, 1970 to 2010.

[5] Former Northern Ireland First Minister, 2008 to 2016, and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, 2008 to 2015. He also served as Member of Parliament for Belfast East from 1979 to 2010.



[8] Former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, 2007 to 2017. Also served as a Sinn Féin Member of Parliament for Mid Ulster, 1997 to 2013. He was also a former member of the Provisional IRA.








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