Clinton's prestige endures in N. Ireland President's work, words in support of peace are rewarded by cheers

September 04, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ARMAGH, Northern Ireland -- This was President Clinton at his best, standing at twilight before the soaring spires of two cathedrals, speaking of peace on an island long embroiled in violence.

"When I go now to other troubled places, I point to you as proof that peace is not an ideal daydream, for your peace is real and it resonates around the world," Clinton said last night, as thousands cheered.

Yesterday, Clinton returned to Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly three years and showed that he can still influence events and win over crowds in Europe's emerald corner.

Whether lecturing local politicians in Belfast or comforting victims of terrorism in Omagh, Clinton emerged as an international cheerleader for Northern Ireland's fledgling peace deal.

He ended his visit in Armagh, the spiritual heart of the Irish island and home to two St. Patrick's Cathedrals, one Roman Catholic, the other the Church of Ireland.

Clinton may be dogged by scandal in America and unable to influence all of the world's hot spots. Yet here, his popularity remains undiminished.

"He has shown us that we're not on our own here," said Jacqueline Donnelly, a 34-year-old housewife. "He brought a world focus on Northern Ireland."

The most moving part of Clinton's visit occurred behind closed doors, when the president spoke to the bereaved and the injured from the Aug. 15 terrorist attack in Omagh, which claimed 28 lives and injured more than 200.

Clinton told 500 listeners that the attack engineered by a fringe terrorist group opposed to the peace deal "was so shocking to the conscience of every decent person in this land that it has perversely had exactly the reverse impact that the people who perpetrated this act intended."

Clinton said the blast "galvanized, strengthened and humanized the impulse to peace."

He added that "people are saying to me, it's high time that the few stop ruining the lives of the many, high time that those who hate stop bullying those who hope, high time to stop the lilt of laughter and language being drowned out by bombs and guns and sirens, high time to stop yesterday's nightmares from killing tomorrow's dreams."

Later, Clinton toured Omagh's devastated city center and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled a marker in front of boarded-up buildings and rubble. The blast, the deadliest in 30 years of terrorism, took the lives of Roman Catholics and Protestants, the young and the old and the unborn.

Clinton's appearance was designed not only to shore up the peace process, but to give it a kick start. And it appeared to work. In the days leading to the visit, bitter political foes made moves to bury their differences. Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, announced a permanent end to violence. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and the first minister of the new assembly, then signaled his willingness to talk with Adams for the first time during assembly meetings Monday.

What may seem like baby steps to some are actually giant strides in a society long divided by religion and shrouded in violence.

And there's no question, in Northern Ireland President Clinton still matters.

When he first toured here in November 1995, he rode a wave of emotion, as tens of thousands of people turned out to celebrate the appearance of an American president. Within two months, a temporary Irish Republican Army cease-fire fell apart with the bombing of London's Dockland business district.

Yet Clinton still carried influence with Northern Ireland's would-be peacemakers. He dispatched former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to chair all-party peace talks. And he was frequently sought out by several parties during the difficult negotiations.

Yesterday, in an appearance at Belfast's gleaming glass-enclosed Waterfront Hall, Clinton basked in the adulation of fellow politicians and gave a sober lecture to the 108 members of Northern Ireland's new assembly.

"There is no president of the United States of America who has done more for peace in Northern Ireland than you," Blair told him to sustained applause.

Seamus Mallom, deputy first minister of the new assembly, told Clinton, "Against all the odds you have helped us break free from a violent and bitter past."

Clinton nodded his head with each compliment. He then launched into a carefully crafted speech designed to appeal to all sides in a society still trying to balance the aspirations of minority Catholics and majority Protestants.

"This has been a magic thing to see unfold -- this developing will for peace among the people of Northern Ireland," Clinton said.

But the president cautioned his audience that tough days may lie ahead, as the politicians attempt to put the bombers out of business for good.

"To the members of the assembly, you owe it to your country to nurture the best in your people by showing them the best in yourselves," he said.

"Difficult, sometimes wrenching decisions lie ahead, but they must be made. And because you have agreed to share responsibilities, whenever possible you must try to act in concert, not conflict; to overcome obstacles, not create them; to rise above petty disputes, not fuel them."

He later flew south to the Irish Republic for a two-day visit.

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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