In April 1992, in a crowded hotel room in New York City, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton addressed an Irish American forum with his opponent for the Democratic presidential primary, former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Clinton made bold commitments on Northern Ireland, including promises to grant a U.S. visa to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, to monitor human rights abuses in Northern Ireland and to appoint a peace envoy to the region.
Few if any people at the meeting would have predicted that six years later President Clinton would be up in the middle of the night on the telephone to his envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, urging him on through the final hours of multiparty negotiations that resulted in the historic Good Friday peace agreement.
The president's extensive personal involvement - beginning with his overruling the State and Justice departments to grant Adams a visa in 1994 and continuing through his emissaries' work in obtaining cease-fires in Northern Ireland - culminated in those final tense hours of negotiations.
With this agreement, a page truly has been turned in Irish history. Decisions about the future of Northern Ireland have been delegated to the people living on the island, north and south.
Irish Republicans, led by Sinn Fein, would have preferred immediate creation of a united Ireland. Protestant unionists would have preferred a permanent tie to Great Britain. Neither group got its ideal, but both got a meaningful structure in which to decide those questions in years ahead.
Sinn Fein can fairly call the agreement "transitional," while unionists can find security in the requirement that there be majority consent in Northern Ireland for a change in its constitutional relationship to Britain and Ireland.
The agreement also guarantees that the nationalist, predominantly Catholic minority in Northern Ireland cannot be governed without its consent.
This is in sharp contrast to the one-party unionist government, predominantly Protestant, that ruled Northern Ireland from 1922 to 1972, grossly discriminating against Catholics in the region.
The agreement also creates governmental structures to operate on an all-Ireland basis. These structures will initially deal with relatively noncontroversial subjects such as tourism and agriculture. But they will demonstrate the practical advantages of such arrangements.
This all sounds good. In fact, it doesn't sound all that new, as a similar set of structures was agreed to in 1973-1974 but foundered under opposition from the unionist community, Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.
This time, the breadth of political groups signing on to the agreement should make things different. The Irish government, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party and Sinn Fein held together on the agreement.
The parties representing Protestant paramilitaries, the leading Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party provided political support from the unionist community - never before present for such a compromise.
But the Protestant Orange Order, which is responsible for divisive sectarian parades that gain international attention each summer in Northern Ireland, has come out against the agreement, as have some unionist politicians led by Ian Paisley, who boycotted the talks. They, like splintered Irish Republican groups who call the deal a sellout, will challenge leaders who have signed on to the agreement.
Most observers expect the referendum on the agreement to be successful. The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland will be campaigning for it, along with most political leaders in Ireland, north and south. Clinton might travel to Ireland before the vote next month. After 30 years of armed conflict, a substantial nTC majority in Ireland is ready to vote for a peace settlement, even if it falls short of their ideal solutions.
And both communities have made significant gains. Political persuasion can replace armed conflict in resolving problems between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For unionists, Northern Ireland is still governed as part of the United Kingdom, but they give away, as they should, the right to deny the nationalist community a different aspiration for the future - one that can be advanced through democratic means.
Irish Republicans could not realistically expect more from this agreement. In fact, when Ireland votes in all 32 counties, north and south, on the agreement May 22, it will be the first time since 1918 that the whole island has been asked to decide on its future governance.
British sovereignty is not changed explicitly by this agreement, but in a political sense the agreement signals the beginning of British withdrawal from Ireland. Once the agreement is put in place, the British will have agreed that the people of Ireland will be free to decide whether and when British sovereignty is ended in the north and a united Ireland is created.