By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Andrew Bushe
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just short of three years since his first triumphant visit, President Clinton is set to return to Ireland for a second time, the White House has confirmed.
The president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will spend four days in the North and the Republic beginning Sept. 3.
The official announcement came Monday while the president was in New Orleans.
“The president has accepted invitations to visit Northern Ireland and Ireland in early September following his meeting with President Yeltsin in Russia,” read the statement by White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry.
“The President will use his visit to underscore the United States’ strong support for the new beginning created by the Good Friday accord and its overwhelming approval by popular vote.”
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The president will arrive in Northern Ireland Sept. 3 and the still tentative schedule has him leaving the Republic on Sept. 6. White House advance teams will arrive in Ireland this week to determine the course of the Clintons’ program.
“They don’t want a rerun of 1995,” said one official familiar with the planning. “It’s a different environment than in 1995, when the message was that an opportunity existed for peace. Now there’s a framework for peace in place and the message will be, ‘You must make it work.’ ”
The White House would clearly be delighted if the same large, enthusiastic crowds turn out to greet the first couple this time around. President Clinton continually points to his visit to Ireland in 1995 as a highlight of his presidency. If there was even a close proximity in terms of interest and ebullience on this visit, White House officials, beleaguered with Monica Lewinsky woes at home, would be very relieved.
President Clinton has been known to be concerned over how charitable history will be to his two terms in office. The success or failure of the Good Friday accord will be inevitably linked with his presidential record.
Because of his personal efforts, including unilateral dialogue with the various parties involved in the peace process, and by placing officials such as former Sen. George Mitchell on the ground during the negotiations, Clinton has a clear political as well as personal interest in the North becoming more stable.
Planners will likely be looking for opportunities that will show Clinton alongside the people he set out to help when he first decided, early in his presidency, that a peaceful solution to the Troubles could be found.
It is believed that this trip will focus more on young people and will be less formal than the last one. There will most likely be an event planned in a border counties area in an effort to drum up more economic opportunities for border residents and businesses. There will probably not be another state dinner or an address to the Oireachtas, as was the case during the first Clinton trip.
Last time around, Clinton had to reschedule at the last minute in order to visit troops in Bosnia. Lost in those revamped travel plans were meetings with some Irish business leaders and a golf game at Ballybunion. This trip will likely make up for those disappointments.
The announcement of the presidential return visit, meanwhile, have been welcomed by politicians in Ireland and Britain, with only the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, indicating his opposition.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both warmly greeted the news.
A government spokesman said the taoiseach was looking forward to personally thanking Clinton for his involvement in the process that led to the peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s first minister, David Trimble, said Clinton would be very welcome.
British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, who is visiting Washington and New York this week, also welcomed the visit.
“I look forward, along with the first minister and deputy first minister, to welcoming the president to Northern Ireland again,” Mowlam said.
“The people of Northern Ireland have achieved much on the road to peace, reconciliation and prosperity since his first visit in 1995. I look forward to thanking him for his unwavering commitment, through good and bad, and for his continued interest.”
There is speculation, meanwhile, that Sen. George Mitchell, who chaired the North peace talks, will join the Clinton party for the Irish leg of their journey.
And outgoing U.S. ambassador, Jean Kennedy Smith, is expected to stay on in Dublin to welcome Clinton. She was originally due to leave her post last month.
As for golf? Ballybunion golf club captain Brian McCarthy said the club had not received confirmation that Clinton would be playing there during the visit.
McCarthy plays off a 13 handicap. He said he understood this was the same as the president and he hoped he might get a chance to play a round with him.
McCarthy recently played with five-time British open champion Tom Watson and two-time U.S. Masters champion Ben Crenshaw when they visited Ballybunion to prepare for the British Open.
“If he does decide to visit, he will be made very, very welcome indeed. It would be a huge honor for the club if the visit becomes a reality,” McCarthy said.