DUNDALK, Ireland - With a song and a plea for peace, President Clinton touched down in this hardscrabble border town last night for a last political hurrah on the southern side of this ancestral island.
Speaking in a main square festooned with Christmas lights and framed by American and Irish flags, Clinton urged thousands of chilled spectators, "stand up for peace, today, tomorrow and for the rest of your lives."
For Clinton, the trip to Dundalk, a town once blighted economically and psychologically by the terrorist troubles that inflamed nearby Northern Ireland, proved to be a high point as his final presidential foreign tour began in Ireland, Northern Ireland and England.
"As I prepare to leave my office, a large part of my heart will be in Ireland," Clinton said, before grasping his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea and joining in with the crowd to sing "Danny Boy." The traditional Irish ballad of love, loss and hope concluded with the words: `Then I shall sleep in peace until you come to me."
Trying to cement the 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord that he helped to achieve, Clinton is using his valedictory visit to gently nudge one-time foes to put in place key elements of an overall agreement while he also basks in public acclaim as a peacemaker.
On an island steeped in history, where old grievances sometimes never die, Clinton reminded the audience "that the past is history and not destiny."
"In the end, you cannot win by making your neighbor lose," he told the waiting crowd and those watching on television throughout an island where religious divisions among Protestants and Roman Catholics provided the trigger to Northern Ireland's terrorist troubles. The 30-year guerrilla war left more than 3,200 dead.
Today, Clinton is due to meet with members of Northern Ireland's local assembly and to give a speech at Belfast's new hockey arena, before flying to England, where he will meet with Queen Elizabeth II.
Northern Ireland's leaders are struggling to implement key ingredients of the 1998 peace accord that brought stability and hope to a long-suffering people. The peace process is stalled, as guerrilla groups still refuse to give up their weapons.
Local leaders hope Clinton's third trip to Northern Ireland lays the groundwork to break the stalemate. The president certainly supplied the right mood music during a Dublin lunch at the Guinness brewery.
"When I started my involvement with the Irish peace process, to put it charitably, half the political experts in my country thought I had lost my mind," he said."`And [after] some of the all-night sessions I had, making phone calls back and forth over here through the whole night, after about the third time I did that, ... I thought I had lost my mind."
But he continued, "I believe that America has in some tiny way repaid this nation and its people for the massive gifts that your people have given us over so many years, going back to our beginnings."
After stopping to shop for woolen goods and mix with Dublin locals at a pub, Clinton made his way toward Belfast, stopping en route at Dundalk.
For Dundalk, Clinton's visit was especially emotive and politically intriguing.
The namesake of Dundalk, Md., lies six miles south of the border with Northern Ireland. Dubbed "El Paso," tucked into the once volatile border area known as "Bandit Country," Dundalk has a reputation for being a tough town that has survived tough times.
For years, it was fertile ground for the Irish Republican Army, with rebel fighters seeking refuge in the pubs, homes and nearby countryside, renowned for its lush landscape and starkly beautiful beaches.
But after the 1998 Omagh bombing left 29 dead, the town made a dramatic U-turn. Thousands turned out to condemn the attack in which the Real IRA claimed responsibility. The group has local links and is represented politically by the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which is chaired by Bernadette Sands McKevitt, the sister of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands.
"You stared violence in the face and said, `No more,'" Clinton said last night.
But just a few hundred yards from where he spoke, rebel fighters are recalled on pictures that adorn the walls of McDonnell's Pub, a hangout for dissidents still opposed to the peace process. Although an American flag was placed in the bar window, it was clear that the pub's patrons had little sympathy for Clinton's message.
"It's just the spirit of the day," a ruddy-faced bartender said of the flag. But he politely shooed away two American reporters who wanted to speak with the patrons sipping midday beers in a bar adorned with photos of rebel fighters.
"I'd rather you not ask," he said.
On the other side of the street, 46-year-old Michael Brady dished out plates piled high with food at Ma Brady's, a restaurant his family has run since 1916, the year rebels took over parts of Dublin in a bid to drive out the British.