Clinton Begins Irish Visit

President Clinton, the son of Irish ancestors, arrived in Ireland today with hopes of overcoming “lingering demons of the past” that threaten to wreck the Northern Ireland peace process, all but halted by mounting distrust on both ides.

While the White House downplays hopes that Clinton can broker steps toward a lasting peace, the president, with just weeks left in office, says: “If there’s something I can do before I leave to make one more shot to resolve this, I will do it.”

After an overnight flight, Clinton, first lady and Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, were greeted at Dublin International Airport by Ireland’s prime minister, Bertie Ahern. Clinton and Ahern chatted on the tarmac for several minutes; the pair planned to meet again later in the day.

In his first official stop, Clinton conferred with Irish President Mary McAleese at her home in Dublin’s 1,750-acre Phoenix Park.

During his visit to Ireland, Clinton also is to visit the Government Buildings in Dublin, attend a reception at the Guinness beer brewery and travel north to Dundalk, the last town before Northern Ireland’s border and a traditional power base for the Irish Republican Army.

Troubles, Past and Present

In the past 30 years, more than 3,600 people have died in political and sectarian violence known as the Troubles.

The conflict is between two sides: Unionists — mostly Protestants — who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and the nationalists — mostly Catholic — who want to see the six counties of Northern Ireland reunited with the rest of the island.

In Belfast, Clinton is to meet with David Trimble, Protestant first minister in the new Northern Ireland government, and Seamus Mallon, the senior Roman Catholic in that government.

In London, Clinton is to stay at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s country mansion, give a foreign policy speech at the University of Warwick and have morning tea with Queen Elizabeth II.

This is Clinton’s third trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland. His last one came shortly after the Good Friday Accord in April 1998 proposed a joint Catholic-Protestant government for Northern Ireland. It finally took office last December but is being threatened by claims that the IRA, which has engaged in bloody violence in the name of ending Britain’s rule in Northern Ireland, has failed to put away its weapons.

Toward Disarmament?

Last week, the IRA emphasized it would move further toward disarmament only if Britain agreed to toughen its legislation reforming the overwhelmingly Protestant police force called the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Clinton told reporters at the White House Monday that policing and disarmament are “the two things that could still threaten the progress that we’re making.”

“Both issues ... reflect kind of the lingering demons of the past, and we just have to get over there and try to purge a few more,” he said. “I hope I can make a contribution.” Trimble traveled to London on Monday for private talks with Blair, fueling some speculation that a new initiative might be in the works.

But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams suggested this was wishful thinking, and Ahern, the leader of Ireland, doesn’t plan to travel to Belfast for Clinton’s talks with the two sides, further dampening hopes for a breakthrough.

Deportations Dropped

To show he wasn’t taking sides, on Monday Clinton dropped efforts to deport nine men whose convictions for IRA activities should have barred them from ever entering the United States.

Before coming to the U.S., all nine had finished serving jail terms in Northern Ireland for crimes including murder and attempted murder, bombing and weapons offenses.

While saying that he did not condone their past criminal acts, Clinton said: “I believe that removing the threat of deportation for these individuals will contribute to the peace process in Northern Ireland.”