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Friday, October 8, 1999 Published at 20:11 GMT 21:11 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

Irish 'drunks' row prompts Clinton apology

Bill Clinton: Jovial remark causes controversy

President Bill Clinton has been forced to make a rare apology after saying Northern Ireland's divided parties are as addicted to fighting as drunks are to drink.

The BBC's Denis Murray:President Clinton has touched a raw nerve
He made a joke of his frustration at the lack of progress in the peace process which is currently under review, during a speech in Canada.

Every time a peace agreement is made, the two sides are like drunks leaving a bar - they reach the swing door and turn back, he said.

The president has been a key player in the peace process, and his comments are normally carefully prepared in advance, to avoid upsetting the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland.

But dedicating a new US embassy in Ottawa Mr Clinton said: "I spend an enormous amount of time trying to help the people in the land of my forebears in Northern Ireland get over 600 years of religious fights.

"And every time they do it they are like a couple of drunks walking out of a bar for the last time. When they reach the swing doors they turn right around and go back in and say 'I just can't quite get there'."

But later the White House issued a written statement in President Clinton's name in which he said:"Earlier today, in a discussion of the Irish peace process, I used a metaphor that was inappropriate. I want to express my regret for any offense my remark caused."

'Highly offensive'

The Democratic Unionist leader, Rev Ian Paisley, who is famous for abstaining from alcohol, said he did not think the president was referring to his Democratic Unionist Party since it was opposed altogether to the Good Friday Agreement.

But Mr Paisley criticised Mr Clinton's remarks.

He said: "This is a highly offensive and insulting remark to the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

'Northern Ireland fatigue'

But Dr Joe Hendron of the nationalist SDLP felt the comments were justified.

He said: "He is referring to that section of people on the Ireland, perhaps mainly in the north of Ireland, on each side of the religious divide, who live in the past - who are intoxicated with our past history."

Another SDLP spokesman said that the statement was an indication of what the party has been saying for a long time, that if progress is not made then the international community would grow tired of us.

David Ervine of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party said he felt the president was right.

He said: "I would rather that the President of the United States was talking about our stability, about inward investment, about opportunity. But he's not. He's talking about our failure."


A spokesman for the White House also said Mr Clinton meant no offence.

David Leavy, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the President was clearly frustrated that both sides could not seize the moment of peace and make progress implementing the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Clinton was closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement peace accord between the most of the main political parties. In the final critical stages in April 1998, he was in touch with many of the main participants by telephone.

He is widely credited with adding his weight to confidence building manoeuvres to bring unionists and republicans together.

He has also made two Presidential visits to Northern Ireland in 1995 and 1998 when he was warmly welcomed by both sides of the community.

The current review of the peace process is being chaired by former US senator George Mitchell. The process failed to deliver a devolved government for Northern Ireland after unionists made clear they would not sit in an Assembly Executive with Sinn Fein while the IRA refused to start weapons decommissioning.

Sinn Fein says unionists have introduced a precondition to sharing power that was not contained in the Good Friday Agreement.

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