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Former President William J. Clinton

Irish America Hall of Fame: President William Clinton

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Former President William J. Clinton

As a major supporter of the Irish peace process, Bill Clinton moved mountains.  The 42nd President of the United States took the strongest position on Irish issues ever taken by an American president. In 1994, he granted a visa to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, fulfilling a campaign promise and stating “the U.S.  cannot miss this rare opportunity for our country to participate in the peace process.”

Then in November, 1995, President Clinton became the first sitting American president to visit Northern Ireland.

I was there and wrote the following account of the occasion:

Belfast: November 30, 1995: It was an evening that dreams were made of, a crystal clear Belfast night, the winter air crackling with anticipation. On the soundstage adjacent to City Hall, Van Morrison was blasting out his “There’ll Be Days Like This,” the unofficial anthem of the  peace process. A huge and enthusiastic crowd, later numbered at 100,000, was rocking along to the music.

All day long the people of Belfast had streamed to this spot, mainly from Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods abutting the downtown area. They had filed through thenarrow downtown canyons under the shadow of the tall buildings bedecked with American flags before collecting in their tens of thousands in the areas surrounding City Hall. As far as the eye could see, back up through the shopping malls, down the narrow sidestreets and along the pedestrian areas, the crowds had gathered.

Even Van Morrison was not holding their undivided attention. Every ten minutes or so a chant would pass through the crowd like a ripple. “We want Bill. We want Bill.”
The rumor had spread that he would play the sax with Van the Man, so every stranger arriving on stage was closely scrutinized. Several times the rumor ran that he was about to make his appearance, and the full-throated roars of the crowd were stilled only when it proved to be another false alarm.

On such a clear night every sound seemed magnified. The tolling of nearby church bells swelled in the evening air. The chants of the crowd carried like a relentless drumbeat, the strains of Van Morrison seemed to carry back even to the furthest regions of the crowd, who were cheering and stomping and waving plastic American flags thoughtfully supplied by the advance team. We all knew we were witnessing something special.

When the long-winded Lord Mayor of Belfast, Eric Smyth, threatened to go on forever during the introduction, he was drowned out with chants of “We want Bill.” Quickly the mayor skipped to the end of his speech.

A few moments later the President and First Lady finally arrived at the podium. It had been a long day for him; his aides stated later that he was feeling tired and jet-lagged. But the crowd lifted him, their extraordinary welcome lasting several minutes. A New York Times reporter later wrote that Clinton had that “suffused look of ecstasy” that politicians acquire before adoring crowds.

Clinton had earned the huge reception. As he had done throughout the day, he appealed over the heads of the politicians to the people themselves.

“The people want peace and the people will have peace,” he pronounced, pounding the podium for emphasis. The people promptly went wild.

I was sitting near a Protestant community worker from the Shankill Road. She had a careworn face, like so many in Belfast, old beyond her 40 or so years, the impact of far too much worry and stress.

“We’ve had so little to celebrate in the past 25 years,” she told me. “When someone like the American President comes and shows he cares about us it means so much to all of us.” Her eyes seemed ready to tear up.

She told me that she and her husband had been to Dublin for the first time ever a few weeks before to see Riverdance, the Celtic dance spectacular. “It was brilliant,” she said, “and we’re going back soon again. We’d never ever have thought of going during the Troubles.”

In front of her, a few seats to the left, sat Joe Cahill, a revered Republican figure who was once spared the hangman’s noose only by a last-second reprieve. Cahill’s journey to America on the eve of the IRA ceasefire had been a critical step in ensuring its success. Only he, it was reasoned, could convince Irish American hardliners that the new peace was worth a try.

“Did you think we’d see days like this?” I asked Cahill, paraphrasing the song.

“No, not like this,” he answered. “This has been a real high point for all of us. It is marvelous, really special, to see the President here.”

The sentiments they expressed from both sides of the divide were echoed everywhere throughout the two-day trip. The groundswell for peace and the evident goodwill for Clinton – who had, after all, taken risks for peace no American President ever had – was clear. Now he had come to their own beleaguered land, a place where during the Troubles some commentators had derided those who lived there as subhuman.

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