The Triangular Relationship: Using a Four Nations Approach in Considering the Anglo-American Alliance

The Triangular Relationship: Using a Four Nations Approach in Considering the Anglo-American Alliance

This week, PhD student Alison Meagher (Queen’s University Belfast) analyses the relationship between the U.S.A. and Britain concerning Northern Ireland through using a transatlantic, four nations approach. 

In Ireland in the World: Further Reflections, Garret Fitzgerald coined the term ‘triangular relationship’ in relation to the trilateral affiliation which America, Britain and Ireland share. He points out that this ‘triangulation’ has been heightened and most demonstrable at critical junctures in the three nations’ histories, such as the way in which Britain influenced American foreign policy towards Ireland both during and after World War II, as well as the way ‘American policy and opinion’ shaped British policy towards Ireland during the crucial years of 1916-21, and again during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.[i] This post will focus specifically on how, once an Irish-American political elite placed the Northern Ireland situation on the Congressional agenda in the 1970s, the Irish issue would colour the relationship between Britain and the United States. Certainly, to study Anglo-American relations without due consideration to the significance of Ireland, both North and South, is to ignore a critical nuance in ‘the special relationship’.

The state of Anglo-American relations at any given time influenced the relationship between the United States and Ireland, particularly in the 20th century. However, once the realities of war in the first half of the 20th century saw the fortunes of America and Britain closely allied, priorities began to change. Maintaining good relations with Britain was a far more prudent choice as long as the threat of the Axis, and later of Communism, loomed large.

Indeed, even an Irish American president knew the importance of not involving his administration in the domestic affairs of Britain. President John F. Kennedy spent four much celebrated days in Ireland, during which time he visited his ancestral homestead in Co Wexford and addressed Dáil Éireann. Yet at no point over the course of these four days did he make any reference to the Northern Ireland situation whatsoever. Without taking away from the much needed brightness and confidence-boost which the visit injected into an Ireland only just emerging from the dour and dreary 1950s, it can be argued that the apparent ‘homecoming’ of one of Ireland’s most celebrated grandsons was all style and very little substance. Ryan Tubridy, in considering the impact of President Kennedy’s visit has noted that:

‘It’s clear he had no interest in getting his hands dirty with complicated issues like Partition. Britain and the United States had fought together against Nazi Germany less than twenty years earlier, and the Special Relationship remained as strong as ever. Kennedy was never going to risk alienating one of his closest allies over such an emotive issue as Partition while he was busy dealing with Russia, Cuba and an increasingly problematic Vietnam. No, Ireland was about thatched cottages and a fun excursion…’[ii]

This prioritisation of geopolitical considerations continued throughout subsequent administrations. Even when hostilities broke out in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, the White House and State Department were shocked by the television footage that emanated from the region, but not shocked into action.[iii]

A significant turning point came about in March 1977 when four Irish-American politicians from the Democratic Party, newly-appointed House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan, and New York Governor Hugh Carey, issued a joint statement on St. Patrick’s Day. In it, they appealed:

‘to all those organisations engaged in violence to renounce their campaign of death and destruction and return to the path of life and peace. And we appeal as well to our fellow Americans to embrace this goal of peace and to renounce any action that promotes the current violence or provides support or encouragement for organisations involved in violence.’[iv]

These four politicians were brought together by a common interest in their ancestral homeland of Ireland in general, and in the Northern Ireland conflict in particular. What marked them apart from other concerned public representatives at this time is the political weight which they each respectively carried within their own parties and throughout the institutions of power in Washington and beyond. Indeed, Andrew J. Wilson’s assertion that they were among ‘the most influential Irish-American Democrats’ during the Carter presidency is difficult to dispute.[v] As their efforts became more high profile, they earned themselves the nickname of ‘The Four Horsemen’, a moniker derived from the successful 1924 University of Notre Dame football team.

In distancing themselves from the more hardline stance traditionally adopted by Irish-America, the Four Horsemen, working in conjunction with the SDLP’s John Hume and representatives of the Irish Embassy in Washington, were able to successfully lobby both the White House and State Department. This culminated in the issuing of a statement, the ‘Carter Initiative’, the significance of which lies principally in the fact that it was made at all. It decreed that in the event of an agreed solution by all parties to the Northern Ireland conflict, the U.S. government would ‘be prepared to join with others to see how additional job creating investment could be encouraged, to the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland’.[vi]

To quote Feargal Cochrane, ‘the Carter Statement gave Northern Ireland a diplomatic identity that belied its status as an integral part of the U.K. and a political presence that took it beyond a matter of purely British domestic concern.’[vii]The Carter statement explicitly set Northern Ireland apart from any other region in the United Kingdom, areas whose affairs the U.S. would never dream of involving themselves in. Crucially, it constituted a bold move by the Carter administration, which showed they were willing to compromise the sanctity of ‘the special relationship’ due to the Northern Ireland issue.

The ‘special relationship’ would be pushed to its limits by this very same issue just two yeas later when, under intense pressure from Congress in the aftermath of reports of Human Rights abuses by the British Army in Northern Ireland, the U.S. State Department refused a license for the sale of arms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. This incident and the ensuing political fallout constituted a defining moment in the relationship between newly elected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Carter. Once more the Northern Irish issue took on a crucial significance in Anglo-American relations.

Five years later, Thatcher famously denounced the recommendations of the New Ireland Forum report in her ‘Out, Out, Out’ avowal after a Chequers summit with Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald in 1984. However, President Ronald Reagan, who had recently embraced his Irish roots in Ballyporeen but also, crucially, enjoyed an efficient and affable working relationship with Speaker Tip O’Neill, did not share her pessismism. He went on to endorse the Forum report and to praise ‘the Irish statesmen for their courageous and forthright efforts recently embodied in the report of the New Ireland Forum.[viii]

Thatcher picked up on Reagan’s pointed message to the extent that when she travelled to Washington in February 1985 she made sure to reference, on several occasions the working relationship between ‘Dr. Fitzgerald and I’, an undertone not lost on Reagan or O’ Neill. Reagan’s suggestion that she treat Fitzgerald ‘as more of an equal partner’ did not go unheeded, nor was his promise of the establishment for a fund for Northern Ireland once a deal was brokered undetected. This episode can be pointed to as a notable instance of Reagan managing to influence Thatcher on a matter which was, in the opinion of both herself and her government, a matter entirely of their own concern. When the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in November 1985, O’Neill joined Reagan in the Oval Office to draft a joint statement of congratulations as well as to announce a funding package from the United States, as first envisaged by the Carter Initiative several years before. Once again, this further underscored the significance of the ‘triangular relationship’ first alluded to at the beginning of this post.

The role of the Clinton administration in the Northern Ireland peace process is well-known and much written about. However, in a post-Cold War context, the actions of President Clinton and the U.S. political elite and the discomfort that may have been caused to the British government did not merit quite the same significance as the events of preceding decades.

The above considered, it can therefore be concluded that not only is a Four Nations approach crucial in considering the Anglo-American relationship but also that this takes on an added significance in the late 1970s when the Northern Ireland situation began to feature prominently on the agenda between the U.S. and Britain.

[i] Garret Fitzgerald, Ireland in the World: Further Reflections (Dublin, 2005), p. 185.

[ii] Ryan Tubridy, JFK in Ireland: Four Days that Changed a Presidency (London, 2010), p. 279-80.

[iii] For more information on the significance of television news reports in creating a global awareness of the situation in Northern Ireland, please see John Bowman, Window and Mirror: RTÉ Television 1961-2011 (Cork, 2011), p. 119.

[iv] National Archives of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs File 2007/111/1973, St. Patrick’s Day Appeal for Peace in Northern Ireland by Edward M. Kennedy, Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Hugh L. Carey, 17 March 1977.

[v] Andrew J. Wilson, Irish America and the Ulster Conflict 1968-1995 (Belfast, 1995), p. 130.

[vi] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, ‘Statement by President Carter on Northern Ireland’, Public Information No. 301, 30 August 1977

[vii] Feargal Cochrane, The End of Irish-America? Globalisation and the Irish Diaspora (Dublin, 2010), p. 58.

[viii] Adrian Guelke, “The United States, Irish Americans and the Northern Ireland Peace Process”, in International Affairs, Volume 73, No.3, July 1996.


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