It’s a farewell tour that’s more than ceremonial. On his final overseas trip as president, Bill Clinton is urging residents of Northern Ireland to protect the progress they’ve made toward peace in the region — and to build on it.
On his third visit to the deeply divided country before he steps down as president on January 20, Clinton is meeting with key players on both sides today in the slow-moving drive for stability.
Clinton went into the meetings increasingly sure that his successor would be George W. Bush and not Vice President Al Gore after U.S. Supreme Court rulings on recounts that favored Bush.
But after the universal adulation that marked his visit to the neighboring Irish Republic and its capital Dublin, Clinton swiftly found a more sour mood in Belfast.
Hard-line Protestant leaders like fiery preacher Ian Paisley lost no time in making clear they felt Clinton favored minority Roman Catholics in negotiations about the future of the province, where 3,600 people have died in the 30-year conflict.
Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party complained that Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is joining the talks, had snubbed them by not including them in today’s main talks.
Clinton and Blair are meeting the leaders — from Protestant First Minister David Trimble to Irish republican Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams — in a string of contacts that they hope will ease the current deadlock.
The peace process is faltering, with the local government arguing over delays in guerrilla disarmament and reform of the predominantly Protestant police.
Former U.S. senator and Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell will also join the talks.
Mitchell chaired meetings of the divided politicians through 22 months of ultimately successful talks, doggedly keeping them at the negotiating table with a mixture of optimism, calmness and fairness which won him the respect of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.
The former Senate majority leader oversaw the signing of the Good Friday accord in April 1998, only to be called back for a successful 11-week rescue mission in late 1999.
No big breakthrough is expected but Clinton, who made Northern Ireland a major plank of his foreign policy, could act as a catalyst for squabbling leaders from the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority.
One coalition minister, Protestant Unionist Dermot Nesbitt, summed up the core issues.
“We have devolution [home rule] in Northern Ireland but we do not have decommissioning [disarmament]. Let’s now see decommissioning. Let us now know that the war is over,” he said.
Police outriders flanked the Clinton motorcade as it swung through the gates of the Stormont Estate.
Major Foreign Policy Plank
On Tuesday, Clinton strode through Dublin on a tide of good will after devoting a great deal of his presidency to the cause of peace in Northern Ireland, the stage for one of the most intractable guerrilla conflicts of the 20th century.
His last stop was the border town of Dundalk, renowned as a bolthole for dissident republicans who spurn Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement and fight on for Irish unity with the gun and bomb.
Clinton, passionately committed to reconciling the feuding communities, had a heartfelt message for the renegade gunmen: “You cannot win by making your neighbors lose.”
The Irish Republican Army and other mainstream guerrilla groups are observing cease-fires but dissidents on both sides of the sectarian divide have been responsible for sporadic violence. Seventeen people have been killed this year.
Clinton, a charismatic communicator basking in the affection of the cheering crowd, told 60,000 people: “Redouble your efforts for peace.”
While on tour, Clinton is likely to be peppered with questions about Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the U.S. presidential elections. But aides traveling with the president, who did not interrupt Clinton’s sleep to tell him about the decision, have made it clear that Clinton will not comment until Gore has had a chance to speak.
ABCNEWS’ Pam Coulter in Belfast and Reuters contributed to this report.