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.
But they, like everyone else, just needed the acknowledgement that they are no better or worse than citizens in New York, Washington or London.
Everywhere President Clinton went in Ireland was a triumphal progress. From the huge crowds in Belfast, Derry and Dublin to the intimate moments such as those with Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Dublin, the President had the perfect pitch, understanding just where the line between American interference and positive involvement lay.
Upon assuming power in January 1993, President Clinton had set about building a new “special relationship” with Ireland, which in several important instances had eclipsed the historical tie with Britain when the two have come into conflict.
“No president has ever invested his prestige and his concern for the people of Ireland and for the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the way Bill Clinton has,” Bruce Morrison, the former Connecticut congressman, a key player in the peace process, said.
The New York Times called the Clinton visit “the best two days of his presidency.” The President himself was clearly ecstatic that he had struck such a chord with a country weary of war and desperate for peace. Clinton had made the Irish peace process his own. Indeed, without him it is unlikely it would have happened at all.
We can take no less an authority than the IRA for that. In a secret IRA memo revealed in the Sunday Tribune newspaper in Ireland on April 23, 1995 the reasons for the IRA ceasefire of August 31, 1994 were detailed. Among the three key reasons given was the support of President Clinton for the new peace process.
Once the peace process began, Clinton threw the full weight of the White House behind it. When the process was lagging, his White House Economic Conference on Ireland in May of 1995 provided an important boost. Clinton became the first ever U.S. president to deliver a major speech on Irish issues when he addressed over 1,500 delegates.
Held at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington over a three-day period, the conference was the first time that any American President has committed his administration to that kind of direct economic and political involvement in the affairs of Ireland since the dawn of the American republic. The future was there in that conference. A future for Northern Ireland that promised peace instead of bloodshed. “The good that he has done here will last long after him in Ireland,” Donald Keough, president emeritus of Coca-Cola, predicted.
In March, 1996, President Clinton, whose ancestors the Cassidys are believed to have emigrated from Ballycassidy, County Fermanagh, was Irish America’s Irish-American of the Year. We are delighted to induct him into our 2011 Irish America Hall of Fame.