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Wednesday, 23 May, 2001, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Clinton: His role in Northern Ireland
Bill Clinton speaking to an audience in Northern Ireland
Pointing the way: Long involvement in Northern Ireland
Shortly before Bill Clinton left office, BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani examined his role in the peace process.

It's a mark of the people skills of President Bill Clinton that it took his visit to unite the people of Northern Ireland, no matter how briefly, in their tens of thousands on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry.


We came here knowing that words are not very good at a time like this, simply to express our sympathy and to support your determined refusal to let a cowardly crime rob you of the future

President Clinton at Omagh, 1998
President Bill Clinton's domestic legacy, belittled by opponents and tainted by impeachment, will be picked over for years to come.

But few doubt the importance of the role that he played in helping to get Northern Ireland's divided community to sit down together with the common goal of consigning violence and inequality to the past.

President Clinton is now on his third visit to Dublin and Belfast - three visits more than any other serving US President has ever undertaken.

It's a commitment that has ranged from granting Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams a US visa in the belief that it would further peace, to admitting to being left "overwhelmed" following a meeting with victims of the Omagh bomb.

Although the peace process is by no means complete, the White House has regarded it as little short of a Clinton foreign policy triumph.

Origins of involvement

For years, any White House desire to get involved in Northern Ireland was tempered by the relationship with London.
Clinton timeline
1992: Irish Forum pledges
1994: Gerry Adams Visa
1994: George Mitchell Appointed
1995: First visit
1998: Key role in Good Friday Agreement
1998: Second visit
2000: Farewell visit

During his White House campaign in 1992, the then Governor Clinton of Arkansas made a pledge to send a peace envoy, something that the majority of the politically influential Irish-American caucus had long sought.

The commitment risked infuriating London and following election, Clinton appeared to have dropped the pledge - appointing only an "economic envoy", Senator George Mitchell.

Coupled with the new US ambassador to Dublin, Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of Clinton's hero President John F Kennedy, the two appointments began a process that would see the US strengthen its involvement in the emerging peace process.

Treading a fine line

Clinton's approach to Northern Ireland appeared to mirror that of many of his domestic policies - appeal to all sides and seek consensus.

His second policy plank was to encourage US companies to bring much-needed economic investment to Northern Ireland.

But it was a fine line to follow. In 1994, President Clinton angered London, the US's closest ally, by granting a US visa to Gerry Adams.

Despite accusations of being soft on terrorism and opposition among some of his own people, Clinton saw it another way.

Only by including the republicans could they be encouraged to leave violence behind.

First visit

President Clinton's first visit to Northern Ireland came in November 1995, 15 months after the IRA announced its first cease-fire.
Gerry Adams and Bill Clinton shake hands on Belfast's Falls Road
Adams and Clinton: The 1995 handshake

He was greeted by tens of thousands of people lining the streets.

After famously shaking hands with Gerry Adams on Belfast's Falls Road (the exact location now features in the official Belfast bus tour), he went on to receive a rapturous reception when he turned on the Christmas tree lights in Belfast city centre.

Clinton appeared to fire the imagination of many people in Northern Ireland, appearing both statesmanlike, non-partisan and folksy at the same time.

The Adams handshake may have drawn unionist criticism, but the president treated him no differently to the political representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries - he would back those he saw as leaving violence behind.

From talks to agreement

George Mitchell's subsequent appointment as the honest broker between all sides in the developing talks, the de facto peace envoy Clinton had promised in 1992, is regarded by many as the president's single most important foreign policy decision of his administration.
Bill Clinton is mobbed on the streets of Belfast
Unprecedent scenes: Thousands turned out

It not only provided a respected and impartial figure to chair talks, but it effectively guaranteed the White House's involvement in helping to find a political settlement in Northern Ireland, between the north and the south and Dublin and London.

Throughout the 1998 talks, there were frequent telephone calls from the Oval Office to the main players - culminating in a round of late-night contacts in the days leading up to the deadline.

Mr Clinton never saw his role as a guarantor of a deal - but it was certainly his intention to be an enabler, encouraging compromise and exerting pressure at the same time.

Mr Clinton's second visit to Northern Ireland, following the dissident republican bombing of Omagh, came as the president was facing increasing domestic pressures at home.

He appeared visibly moved following a meeting with some of those who survived the bombing - but stressed to all of Northern Ireland that it was "up to you" to find the solutions.

Difficult, sometimes wrenching decisions lie ahead but they must be made," he said. "The spirit of reconciliation must be rooted in all you do."

The future

A question mark now hangs over future American policy.

No one expects the incoming administration to be as dedicated to the peace process as Clinton.

But there is a suggestion that Mr Clinton - soon to be an extremely young ex-president at the tender age of 54 - may want to take up some future role in furthering the peace process.

And while history may judge his presidency at home harshly, many in Northern Ireland would leap instantly to his defence.

Afterall, recent events may have been very different had President Clinton not turned on those Belfast Christmas tree lights in 1995.

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