Women in N. Ireland hail Hillary Clinton as survivor First lady commands spotlight at conference

September 03, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Around here, they're standing by their woman -- Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Flying into Northern Ireland yesterday a day ahead of her husband, President Clinton, the first lady received a rousing welcome when she spoke to 600 delegates attending a Vital Voices: Women in Democracy conference.

In the spotlight and in command, the first lady talked of women's rights, equal opportunities and the hope that the promise of peace can be fulfilled in Northern Ireland.

"This is one of the most beautiful places on God's earth," she said to cheers.

Northern Ireland's verdant landscape seems a world away from the Washington scandal that has threatened her husband's presidency. While the inside-the-Beltway crowd is engrossed with Clinton's admission of an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the Belfast crowd doesn't much care.

Still, there was an air of expectancy inside the glittering Waterfront Hall as the crowd waited for the speech. Gathered were the movers and shakers among Northern Ireland's women -- politicians, business leaders, community activists.

"Everyone is dying to see how she looks and reacts," said Frances Donaghy, board secretary of the Royal College of Nursing. "This is a very tenacious woman who can keep her head up against all odds. It can't be easy for her at this moment."

Dressed in a dark navy suit, appearing calm and composed, the first lady showed that she can still work a crowd. She avoided the scandal completely, took the high road, and talked about the issues that engross a society that has been battered by 30 years of terrorist violence.

The biggest worry here is how to make sure a fledgling peace deal among Roman Catholics and Protestants sticks.

"It is up to you, the women of Northern Ireland, speaking out whenever injustice arises, to point out opportunities, to face up to challenges, and to speak for those who are still voiceless," she said.

The Clintons, who first ventured here in November 1995, remain popular in Northern Ireland. They are seen by many as honest brokers who can be turned to in times of trouble.

"They didn't have just a one-off, fly-by-night visit here," said Monica McWilliams, leader of Northern Ireland's Women's Coalition political party. "Everyone else flies off after peace is created. But not the Clintons."

The delegates threw their support to the first lady.

"I'm not surprised that she has lifted her head up," McWilliams said. "She is an independent woman with her own independent projects, no matter what is happening in America. By standing up there, she showed that you can have your own profile."

"She is a really good role model for women," McWilliams added. "She is a survivor."

Others agreed.

"She has shown that women given a real voice can make a lasting contribution to their communities, their countries and the world," said Fiona Hughes, a 17-year-old student who introduced the first lady.

Valerie Kingham, a local political leader, said the first lady showed grace under pressure.

"Hillary deserves a medal," Kingham said. "She is a tough woman. If I were Hillary Clinton, I would have put him [the president] down the lavatory and pulled the chain."

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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