The Last Hurrah

Clinton shakes hands with well-wishers outside Fagan's Bar in North Dublin after he stopped for a pint.

By Kelly Candaele, Contributor
February / March 2001

President Bill Clinton’s third, unprecedented and final visit to Ireland as President had all the feelings of a homecoming. And why not? No other American President has devoted as much time, political energy and determination to bringing peace to Northern Ireland and economic development to the country as a whole as Bill Clinton. And it was clear from the crowds that lined the streets of Dublin to greet him, from the tens of thousands who turned out on a cold, wet evening in Dundalk, and from the warm reception in Belfast, that the vast majority of people of Ireland, North and South, appreciate his efforts for peace.

This trip should have been a victory lap. But over six years after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a ceasefire and Sinn Féin, their political representative, signed on to a political process designed to “remove the gun” from Northern Irish life, the new political institutions remain precarious. The latest impasse, one in a series of rolling crises that have threatened to shut down the political institutions born out of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, results from First Minister David Trimble’s refusal to nominate Sinn Féin government ministers to their posts on the North/South Ministerial Council. The council, which allows for formal involvement of the Dublin government in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, was a key component of the peace deal for nationalists.

In Dublin, accompanied by First Lady and Senator-elect Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea, Clinton visited the Guinness brewery (an Irish journalist compared him to the stuff – “smooth, goes down well with the Irish, has a white head and is worth the wait”) where he was introduced by the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahem. Clinton speculated on why he became so involved in an area of the world that was more complicated than strategically important. He drew laughs of empathy from the audience when he recounted that after a particularly long and fruitless series of early morning phone calls to the different parties in Belfast, he came to agree with some of his foreign policy advisors who had advised him that he was “crazy” to focus his energy on Northern Ireland. “Maybe it was because there are 45 million Irish Americans and I was trying to get votes,” he said. He concluded, finally, that “The truth is, it was the right thing to do.”

Clinton claims to have become fascinated with the Northern Irish “Troubles” since his Rhodes Scholar years at Oxford in the late 1960s – he visited Dublin during that time – but most American presidents have regarded problems there as an “internal” matter for the British and have refused to damage the AngloAmerican “special relationship.”

At the time John F. Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, the first President to do so while in office, the Cold War framed U.S. policy in Europe. Kennedy arrived in Ireland eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and on his way back from West Berlin, where he had given his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. In different cities throughout Ireland, he warned of the dangers of communism, and in his discussions with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan during the visit, he focused on the communist threat in Vietnam and Laos and the need to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Kennedy was never tested by a Northern Ireland crisis. The so-called IRA “border campaign” had been called off in 1962.

The same broad political dynamics were at work during President Ronald Reagan’s trip to Ireland in 1984. Like Kennedy, his focus was on broader European questions and relations with the Soviet Union. In his address to Ireland’s Parliament, he condemned “misguided Americans” who supported terrorists in Northern Ireland and stated that “we [the United States] must not and will not interfere in Irish matters nor prescribe to you solutions or formulas.” The majority of Reagan’s speech was devoted to explaining U.S. policy in Central America and in defending U.S. nuclear-arms policy in Europe.

The Clintons disembark Air Force One at Dublin Airport

Clinton’s legacy has clearly been dramatically different. During his 1992 primary campaign, Clinton promised a group of prominent Irish Americans that he would support sending a special envoy to Northern Ireland and would grant Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams a visa to visit the United States. “I think we sometimes are too reluctant to engage ourselves in a positive way because of our long-standing special relationship with Great Britain and also because it seemed such a thorny problem,” he told the crowd. “But I have a very strong feeling that in the aftermath of the Cold War, we need a governing rationale for our engagement in the world, not just in Northern Ireland.” His trips to Ireland were his attempts to make that changed rationale concrete.

On his 2000 visit Clinton’s only public appearance in the Republic took place in Dundalk, on the evening of his arrival. A few miles south of the Northern Irish border, Dundalk is a base for the “Real IRA” (an IRA splinter group) who oppose the peace process and who were responsible for the 1998 bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people. The last massive crowd to gather in the town’s Market Square came to condemn local Real IRA activists in the aftermath of the bombing. Dundalk is also the Irish headquarters of the American company Xerox (Irish American Ann Mulcahy is president and COO), which has taken advantage of Irish government incentives for inward investment and for companies to locate outside of Dublin. Xerox has employees from Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Like his previous trips in 1995 and 1998, the crowds gathered early in the afternoon, working their way through secret service metal detectors placed at every entrace to the center of town.

Young and old came, some carrying babies, and many drove down from across the border, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Education Minister Martin McGuinness who signed autographs before Clinton arrived. A group of local high school girls were decked out in red, white and blue Uncle Sam cheerleader outfits. James McGrath, a small shop owner who set up his business with assistance from the International Fund For Ireland, hung a large tricolor Irish flag above his shop welcoming the President a few hours prior to his evening arrival. “This town is the last town before the border and we have suffered a great deal from the Troubles,” he said. “So it’s great that we can show the world that the great majority of people here want peace.

Long before Clinton arrived on stage many in the front rows led chants of “We want Bill.” When he finally arrived ninety minutes late – he had to drive from Dublin rather than helicopter due to fog – he was greeted with a loud and extended welcome. One of the first speakers was Joan McGuinness, a small business owner who recounted the “anger and fear” of those who had lost their jobs during the bleak years of economic decline. “I didn’t know how much our potential was blocked, just how oppressive that atmosphere of violence, bloodshed, hurt and anger was, until the prospect of peace opened up for us,” she told the crowd. She thanked President Clinton for helping turn the area’s economy around, adding, “We know in our souls that this would not have happened without you.”

Clinton, in a theme he has repeatedly emphasized during all of his trips to Ireland, spoke of the economic benefits of peace – the commonly expressed belief that economic prosperity is a key to bringing previously excluded people into the mainstream of Irish life. “We know violence suffocates opportunity,” he said. “And we know in the end, there can be no full justice without jobs…You are the proof of the fruits and wisdom of peace.”

He also acknowledged the response the community made to the Omagh bombing. “Two years ago…you good people filled these streets. Young people came, not wanting to lose their dreams. Older people came because they wanted a chance to live in peace before resting in peace. You stared violence in the face and said, `No more.’ I ask you to stand for peace today, tomorrow and the rest of your lives.”

Before moving off the stage into the crowd, he ended his remarks by pointing out what by now is obvious. “A large part of my heart will always be in Ireland, for all the days of my life,” he said. As the traditional Irish band Altan played in the background, President Clinton spent forty minutes shaking hands and drawing energy from the crowd before flying to Belfast for the evening. Thinking that the President was continuing his drive North, hundreds of residents of County Armagh had lined the main highway hoping to catch a glimpse of the Presidential motorcade on its way to Belfast, only to discover later that he had traveled by helicopter.

It was in Belfast where the harder political bargaining took place. Clinton met with all of the pro-agreement parties at Stormont but came away without any concrete progress to report on how the current impasse would be resolved. On the eve of his 1995 trip, a deadlock was broken that allowed all party talks to move forward, so there was some speculation among the media that a similar process would unfold.

In his speech at the new Odyssey Center in downtown Belfast where he was joined by Prime Minister Tony Blair, First Minister of the Assembly David Trimble and Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, he outlined a series of steps that could become the outline for progress. “First, the Patten Report [on police reform] must be implemented…there must be security normalization and arms must be put beyond use,” he said. Clinton focused on the key issue of saved lives and other changes in daily life that have resulted from the peace process. “How many children are alive today in Northern Ireland because deaths from sectarian violence are now a small fraction of what they were before the Good Friday accords? …How many days of normality have you gained because the checkpoints on the border aren’t there anymore, because honest people can go to a pub or a school or a church without the burden of a search or the threat of a bomb?” And he spelled out how Northern Ireland had gained in terms far beyond its size or strategic significance. “In Africa and the Middle East, in Latin America and, of course, in the Balkans…it is more important than ever to say, `But look what they did in Northern Ireland and look what they are doing in Northern Ireland.”

The Belfast speech was the only place where Clinton received any opposition – whereas Reagan was challenged by protesters at every stop. A student from Queens University repeatedly interrupted him from the audience shouting accusations about U.S. policy in the Middle East. And David Trimble got up and left the stage halfway through Clinton’s speech, generating speculation about what part of the President’s speech offended him until press handlers indicated he had to catch a plane to Italy for a conference. Clinton closed by asking the audience to look to the future by giving “your children not your own yesterdays, but their own tomorrows.”

On the day after Clinton departed for London for meetings with Blair, a car bomb was discovered in central Belfast and disarmed. Two young men were arrested who were believed to part of the Real IRA. Also, the Taoiseach announced the imminent movement of security forces to the northern border areas of the Republic.

One possible scenario for resolving the impasse is that British military bases, towers and troops in South Armagh (there are about 3,000 troops in the area) could be reduced in exchange for the IRA re-contacting the international committee on disarmament to move forward on the specifics of weapons decommissioning. Again, Clinton’s visit served as a basis for moving the process forward. But with British elections scheduled for next year, and David Trimble facing another meeting of his party council in January, there is concern that unless something happens fast the room for political maneuvering will become increasingly limited.

But history has turned a corner in Northern Ireland. And one of the primary agents of that history is President Clinton. During his 1995 visit to Derry, Clinton quoted Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, suggesting that the time had come for “hope and history” to rhyme. In Dundalk he again quoted Heaney as having given the instructions to “Walk on air against your better judgment.” Bill Clinton brought hope to all of Ireland, a presidential spirit that overcame both the “cult of pessimism” that had created a toxic atmosphere in the North, and the “better judgment” of the foreign policy “experts” who recommended inaction as the safe alternative to potential failure. It’s hard to say what role Clinton might play in the future for Ireland. President-elect Bush would be smart to use him. But one thing is clear. There will always be one country in the world where any time he comes he will be embraced and will feel right at home. ♦

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