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Friday, October 31, 1997 Published at 08:23 GMT


Northern Ireland welcomes back Hillary

As Northern Ireland prepares to welcome America's First Lady, the BBC's Northern Ireland correspondent, Mark Devenport, looks at developments since the last Clinton visit in 1995.

When Bill Clinton left Northern Ireland in December 1995 he vowed that he would return. He spent two days on the island - one north and one south of the border and it proved to be a remarkable diplomatic success. The President received a film star's welcome from the people of Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin.

The rock musician, Van Morrison, who played for the President in front of a massive crowd at Belfast City Hall sang the line, "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?" Contrasting his reception with the more difficult times he was facing in the US, Mr Clinton would have had no difficulty agreeing with that sentiment.

Two years on, it's not President Clinton but his wife, Hillary, who is making the return trip. Her intention is to focus attention on the role of women and young people in democracy and in the Northern Ireland peace process.

This will be a lower profile visit than the last time. This is partly because the First Lady will not be accompanied by her husband, but also because the situation in Northern Ireland has changed significantly since the heady days of Christmas 1995.

In the interim, one IRA ceasefire has broken down and another has been put in place - bombings and shootings in both England and Northern Ireland have instilled a sense of cautious realism among people when they survey the peace process.

America remains an important player, but there is now less tension between Washington and London - the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the US President, Bill Clinton, appear to be in tune about the direction they would like the process to take.

In 1995 much attention was focussed on the handshake between Mr Clinton and the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams. Tony Blair also faced strong criticism for meeting Mr Adams face to face earlier this month. But for Hillary Clinton, another handshake was of lasting importance, namely her encounter with Joyce McCartan, a working class Catholic woman who lost several close relatives, including her son, to the troubles.

[ image: Belfast 1995:
Belfast 1995: "A very special memory"
Mrs McCartan rose above her grief to become a powerful worker for peace and cross-community reconciliation. Mrs Clinton met Joyce McCartan and a small group of Protestant and Catholic women for a cup of tea in the Lamplighter, a drop-in-centre-cum-fish and chip shop on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast.

Just over a month after the visit Joyce McCartan died at the age of 67, prompting Mrs Clinton to pay tribute to her work for peace. "Joyce's commitment and energy were an inspiration to me...The time I spent with her in Belfast will live on with me as a very special memory".

It is therefore fitting that the high point of the First Lady's visit to Northern Ireland will be when she delivers the inaugural Joyce McCartan Memorial Lecture at the University of Ulster. The speech will be the first of a series at the University devoted to the subject of women and leadership. Mrs Clinton is also due to speak at Generation 2000 - a gathering of Catholic and Protestant youngsters from across Northern Ireland.

Before her arrival in Belfast, Mrs Clinton visited Dublin where she was guest of honour at a government dinner hosted by the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. At the end of the trip Mrs Clinton will fly to London, where she will join Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, at the Prime Minister's rural Buckinghamshire retreat at Chequers. There she will participate in a closed seminar on shared policy perspectives and common challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.


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