Clinton's visits encourage Irish on road to peace President's contribution to rapprochement hailed as three-day tour ends

September 06, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LIMERICK, Ireland -- When it comes to giving peace a boost on the Irish island, there's nothing like a visit by President Clinton.

During his three-day all-Ireland barnstorming tour that ended yesterday, Clinton emerged as the No. 1 cheerleader -- and backer -- of the historic Northern Ireland peace accord. He lectured often bitter political foes. He warned the public that there could be more bombs like the blast Aug. 15 in Omagh, the bloodiest attack of Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles.

The toll in that attack rose to 29 with the death yesterday of a local businessman injured in the explosion.

Most of all, Clinton gave people here a measuring stick, a way to see how far they have come since his first visit to the island in 1995, and how far they have to go.

Hope and hard choices

On his first Irish trip, Clinton rode a wave of hope -- but it proved to be a false hope, with the bombers going back to work two months after he left.

This was a different trip altogether, less a celebration than a reminder that hard work -- and hard choices -- must still take place.

"The peace process is much further along this time, but it is also at a critical juncture," Clinton told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Northern Ireland now has a groundbreaking peace deal brokered in April by the British and Irish governments and approved by voters on both sides of the Irish border in May.

But the political players still have to make many concessions over the next two years to implement the full terms of the accord: The new Northern Ireland assembly must show it can govern. Cross-border bodies have to be established between the north and the Irish Republic to the south. Terrorists have to hand over their weapons. Northern Ireland's police force faces reform.

Words of encouragement

As he wrapped up his tour with one last speech, Clinton implored thousands of flag-waving spectators jammed into an intersection of this historic city to reject "the enemies" of Northern Ireland's peace accord.

"Do not let them break your will," Clinton told the roaring crowd.

Clinton added that the peace deal now gives him a chance "to tell every warring, feuding, hating group of people trapped in the prison of their past conflicts to look at Ireland and know that there can be a better day."

Despite political problems at home and an inability to score many other foreign policy successes, Clinton showed that he can still sway events here. And for a president searching for his place in history, the deal-making in Northern Ireland may yet prove his most long-lasting achievement.

Clinton's appearance sparked a flurry of activity among Northern Ireland's politicians. On the eve of the tour, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing, declared that the "violence we have seen must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."

Estranged leaders to meet

The Adams statement was a virtual declaration that the IRA's long terror war is over.

And it earned Adams a face-to-face meeting scheduled for this ** week with David Trimble, the leader of the Protestant-dominated Ulster Unionist Party and first minister of Northern Ireland's new local assembly.

"We all want stable government; we all want to see peace returned to Northern Ireland. There is a contribution that Gerry Adams can make. We want to make sure that is done," Ulster Unionist Party negotiator Dermot Nesbitt told reporters in Belfast yesterday after the party's ruling executive approved the meeting.

Trimble and Adams remain far apart on many issues. But just getting them in the same room -- talking -- is seen by many as a necessary step to bridging the differences between minority Roman Catholics, many of whom want a united Ireland, and majority Protestants, who favor Northern Ireland's continued ties Britain. Trimble refused for three years to talk directly to Adams.

Creating true peace in Northern Ireland will take years of bargaining and compromise. But the difficult negotiations are now taking place.

Clinton told his audience yesterday that Ireland's glory is that its people had "the courage to begin again."

"This island is coming home to itself," he said.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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