President Clinton’s last presidential visit to Northern Ireland ended today with a peace process still stalled and politicians feuding, yet citizens still longing for a violence-free future.
He told the people of Belfast to “claim your moment” for peace.
Clinton succeeded in recharging the talks to resolve 30 years of sectarian and political violence over Britain’s rule of Northern Ireland. He left with an informal agreement between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom to do more to counter terrorists unhappy with the new and fragile power-sharing government in the north.
“I believe in the peace you are building. I believe there can be no turning back. I believe you are committed to that,” Clinton said before leaving for London where he planned to meet Thursday with Queen Elizabeth II and make a foreign policy speech. “And I think it’s very important that people the world over see what you are doing and support you along the way.”
A Three-Hour Meeting
The president met for nearly three hours with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly but none of the leaders made any announcements about how they can surmount key issues — disarmament by terrorist groups and police reform — that are threatening to unravel the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“It is still for you to claim your moment,” Clinton told more than 6,000 people who packed a brand new sports arena along a revitalized city waterfront.
David Trimble, Protestant first minister in the new Northern Ireland government, warmed up the audience for Clinton, saying he would “stand firm” in his demand for gradual Irish Republican Army disarmament. “I do not intend to let the ship of peace sink on the rocks of old habits and hard grudges,” he said. “We are learning to define ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his government’s cautious approach to scaling down its military forces in Northern Ireland in response to the Irish Republican Army’s 1997 cease-fire. Despite IRA dissidents’ continuing effort to wreck the cease-fire, Blair said, Britain had already reduced British forces in the province to around 13,000, the lowest level in three decades.
Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, said Britain still wasn’t doing enough and blamed Blair of demonstrating bias toward Trimble. But he praised Clinton and said the president had blazed a solid trail for his successor.
“The USA now has a peace policy toward Ireland. I can’t see any president abandoning that,” said Adams, who was in the audience for Clinton’s speech.
Clinton spent several hours at Stormont, an imposing, neoclassical structure faced with six columns that houses the Assembly.
The president mingled in its Great Hall with nearly all 108 Assembly members, who stood clustered in their respective political affiliations, mirroring the very problem of getting all sides to see eye to eye.
Lawmaker Cedric Wilson said he told Clinton that the United States had failed to stand up against “terrorists on the street and gunmen in the government.” Wilson was referring to the early paroles for more than 200 IRA prisoners and the guaranteed role in the Northern Ireland administration for Sinn Fein party — both stipulations of the Good Friday pact.
“The president could use the force of the United States and his office to say to these people that the days of terror are finished,” Wilson told reporters.
Clinton later told reporters: “No, we’re not soft on” terrorism.
Concerns About Terrorism
Clinton and Blair each met separately with Trimble; Seamus Mallon, the government’s senior Roman Catholic; and the Sinn Fein’s Adams.
National security adviser Sandy Berger said the United States, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom agreed to do more to counter terrorism.
“This is a mechanism by which the three governments will be able to work together more effectively to deal with those groups that reject the process of peace and seek to continue the path of violence,” Berger said.
British and Irish leaders had hoped Clinton would use his visit to announce that he will seek to have the Real IRA, a splinter group from the Irish Republican Army, added to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Clinton said the matter was under review.
First lady Hillary Clinton also pushed for peace, telling 500 people gathered at Belfast’s Grand Opera House that women can do more to help the peace process. “We cannot go back to the time when every wife had to worry and said the same prayers to the same God that her husband would not get caught up in ‘the Troubles,’” she said.