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Hillary Clinton's vow to keep Northern Ireland on her radar is no bad thing

After a week of press speculation on the subject, Hillary Clinton has finally weighed in to confirm that the special envoy rumors are true — well, sort of, anyway.

But what exactly did Foggy Bottom’s heaviest hitter say about Northern Ireland’s future place in the Washington sun?

By pledging her continued peace process dedication, did she mean it will be business as usual for the prized Belfast-to-Washington pipeline of the last 15 years? Or, was there a subtext in her words that signaled that top level US involvement is gradually winding down?

In an interview, Clinton left no doubt that she has a personal stake in seeing peace bedded down for good.

When asked directly if she would take up the special envoy post, she said that she had “spent many years in this — on this issue. I care deeply about the outcome. I know the players”.

But Clinton also avoided using the term “envoy”, and instead stressed that she and her “team” would be “on call to help in any way we can as the continuing decisions have to be made to realize the full benefits of a Northern Ireland at peace and moving toward the kind of prosperity they’re looking for”.

Clinton framed her involvement in the context of a group effort by State Department staffers including “people who work on European affairs who have the responsibility for Ireland and the UK who are involved in a day-to-day way with furthering our goals in Europe, and myself”.

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But Clinton also said a “fulltime” envoy isn’t needed because: “This is not the 1990s. George Mitchell did his job and did it very well.

“The problems that the continuing efforts toward finalizing the agreements in the Good Friday Accord are really up to the parties themselves, and certainly in consultation with the British Government and, to a lesser extent, the Irish government.”

In other words, while she and her State Department crew will take any supportive actions deemed appropriate by leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London, the heavy lifting on any future deadlocks will be done in those cities and not in Washington.

So don’t expect to see Hillary Clinton jetting into Belfast every few months for meetings with the political parties, as special envoys did in the past.

More likely, the mountain will usually have go to Mohammad, and Secretary Clinton will brainstorm with visiting delegations, when her schedule allows.

Of course, the modern miracle of the telephone means that Clinton can keep in touch if needed, even if she’s on one of many trips abroad dealing with the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, Afghan-istan and Pakistan, China and Russia, etc.

But even with all those balls to juggle, Clinton has stressed that the Irish peace process “is one that we’re going to really keep a close eye on”.

“I’ve been in consultations with representatives of the Irish government, the British Government, the Northern Ireland leadership, and we’re going to be as helpful as we can.”

The benefits of Clinton’s continued personal involvement are obvious. With the exception of George Mitchell, past envoys haven’t exactly been household names. And, while Richard Haass, Mitchell Reiss and Paula Dobriansky all had the periodic attention of the White House, none had quite the stature or political connections of Secretary Clinton.

Hillary knows the nuances of the process, and won’t have to be brought up to speed about things like the policing and justice devolution tangle.

And having someone at the State Department’s helm could be of great benefit when delegations from Northern Ireland hit America seeking investment.

The bottom line is that the First Lady, who had the time to visit Ireland six times when Bill Clinton was President, has morphed into America’s top diplomatic officer with a plateful of tough nuts to crack around the world.

Yet she still intends to keep Northern Ireland on her radar. Who could ask for anything more?

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