In Irish eyes, Clinton is a grand peacemaker Lewinsky scandal does not diminish regard for president

September 05, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland -- Jenny Gilbert stood for three hours in a sweltering hall yesterday to hear President Clinton give a speech and to shake his hand. And she had no regrets.

"The Irish are quite bored with this Monica Lewinsky thing," said Gilbert, a 34-year-old union official. "We think the president is grand."

On an island long troubled by bad weather and bad news, Clinton has discovered a refuge. He may be in political trouble in Washington, but during the first two days of his trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, he has been greeted by enthusiastic crowds, lauded by politicians and business leaders, and venerated as a peacemaker.

Most of all, he has found a population utterly bored by the Washington squabbles over his admission to an inappropriate relationship to the former White House intern.

"He is a great people person, a great speaker," said Peter Nolan, 48, an employment counselor. "He is a bit European in his outlook. He's progressive. And his personal life doesn't measure on the Richter scale."

Perplexed by scandal

On both sides of the Irish border, people are perplexed by the Lewinsky affair and claim that the private life of a politician should remain under wraps. That may come as a surprise to some who still view the island as dominated by religion.

But the days when the Roman Catholic Church held sway in the southern Irish Republic are long gone. Changing social values, rising prosperity and scandals among the clergy have cut into the church's influence in Ireland.

Irish Premier Bertie Ahern symbolizes the new order. Long separated from his wife, he now lives with his companion and brings her to official functions. And nobody bats an eye or raises a hackle.

Yesterday, Ahern spoke of a "new Ireland that cherishes difference."

'A true friend'

He added, "Mr. President, you have been a true friend of all democrats on this island, irrespective of their allegiance, and regardless of their outlook."

Ireland's major newspapers supported the trip -- and Clinton -- though some columnists had reservations about the president's character.

"Bill Clinton's dark secrets and squalid personal habits may highlight his flaws as an ideal contemporary husband; they do not diminish his historic achievements as a statesman," Sam Smyth wrote in yesterday's Irish Independent.

Broker of peace in north

In Northern Ireland, which is part of Great Britain, people have greater concerns than affairs of the heart -- they're worried about stopping a 30-year terror war. One of the Clinton administration's great foreign policy successes was the role it played in helping broker an historic peace deal.

Clinton's close ties to Northern Ireland were all but sealed in November 1995 when he became the first sitting American president to visit the battle-torn province. On his return trip Thursday, the crowds may have been thinner than in 1995, but the sentiment about him was just as strong.

On the day that Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman was taking Clinton to task in the U.S. Senate, Northern Ireland's entire political establishment, along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, turned out in Belfast to honor the president as a peacemaker.

"With deference to other American presidents, his [Clinton's] contribution to peace has been sincere, consistent and balanced," said Eileen Bell, a member of Northern Ireland's new 108-member assembly.

Bell admitted that Northern Ireland retains a "Victorian streak," and that if a local politician were caught up in a sexual affair, he -- or she -- "would have to go."

"Maybe it will be a sign of the peace, if the press start looking at our private lives," she said.

But for now, the press, and the Irish public, are content to examine Clinton's public record.

"He's human, he has admitted his downfall, and you should leave him alone," said Priscilla Duffy, a 29-year-old who was among the thousands to cheer Clinton Thursday at a peace rally in Armagh.

"He should come here more often," she added. "Even when he's no longer president, he'll be a major figure here. We'll never forget what he has done for us."

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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