By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Clinton’s comparing of Northern Ireland’s political leaders to a couple of drunks stuck in a bar last week sparked predictable uproar and outrage.
But in the aftermath of the comments Clinton made in Ottawa, Canada, on Friday — words that prompted an immediate if terse apology from the president — Irish Americans were also focusing on the state of the president’s mind with regard to his, and effectively U.S., involvement in the search for a lasting settlement in the North.
Variations on the question were being widely posed. If the two drunks of the president’s imagination could not make it through the swinging door, was the president himself preparing to quit the licensed premises that he included in his "inappropriate" metaphor for the peace process?
The new uncertainty surrounding the president’s mood and inclination followed quickly in the wake of his scathing assessment of the peace process, one that created the largest headlines during an otherwise routine reaffirmation of U.S./Canadian friendship.
"I spent 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," Clinton told the assembled dignitaries including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
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"Every time they make an agreement to do it," Clinton said of Northern Ireland’s politicians, "they’re like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time — when they get to the swinging door they turn around and go back in and say, ‘I just can’t quite get there.’ "
Clinton concluded: "It’s hard to give up these things."
Afterward, in a statement issued from Mont Tremblant where the president stayed overnight, Clinton 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."
Sources indicate that Clinton’s closest advisor on Ireland, Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Steinberg, telephoned Irish Ambassador Sean O hUiginn in Washington and apologized as well.
White House officials, in a further attempt to limit damage from the statement, told The Echo that the president was frustrated by the fact that the peace process had so clearly degenerated.
"The inability of both sides to seize this chance at peace has him completely frustrated," said White House spokesman David Leavy.
"The president did not mean offense to any group of people. He’s worked many years and has a great personal input, He’s quite clearly exasperated."
Said Irish Embassy spokesman Adrian O’Neill: "The quality of the metaphor may have been less than ideal, but the essential point of the president’s comments was to reflect his impatience at the lack of progress that has been made."
This was not the most polished presidential appearance for a president known for his precision semantics. On the same day, Clinton shocked many in the audience by indicating he and Mrs. Clinton "always enjoy visiting France." For Canadians, seriously divided between French- and English-speaking groups, his ambiguity on just what country he was visiting raised eyebrows.
When Clinton spoke about the Irish issue, he deviated wildly from his carefully orchestrated script. He delivered the off-the-cuff comments with wide gestures and a broad smile. According to one account, U.S. officials off stage visibly grimaced when Clinton finished his berating of Northern Ireland’s politicians.
Reaction from Irish Americans was swift.
"His words don’t make me very happy," said Frank Durkan of the Americans for a New Irish Agenda lobby group. "I don’t know what would make him say such stupid things. But I still have to say nobody has done more for Ireland than Bill Clinton."
Brian O’Dwyer, who last year presented Clinton with a peace award named after his late father, Paul O’Dwyer, described Clinton’s remarks as "truly regrettable" and coming at a critical time in the peace process.
"We should all forgive a momentary lapse of language given the president’s dedication to the peace process. I prefer to judge him on his overall record and not on this one statement," O’Dwyer said.
Fr. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus echoed a similar refrain: "I love and respect President Clinton for what he has done to bring peace to Ireland. I regret he used that language. He is obviously very frustrated that the Good Friday agreement still has not been implemented, but I regret the analogy he used."
Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts saw the remarks as being ill-considered. "But it is also important to take the long view," he said. "Time and again Clinton has demonstrated his interest in an issue that no other U.S. president has so closely embraced."
Above and beyond the publicly stated reaction, other Irish Americans were voicing even deeper concern about aspects of the president’s remarks beyond the analogy to drunkards.
One veteran observer of the peace process, who preferred not to be named, said he was particularly alarmed by the president’s characterization of the Northern Ireland conflict as being purely a religious one confined to Northern Ireland itself.
This, the observer said, was the way that successive British governments had attempted to portray the conflict, but it should not be the sole view held in Washington.
This is not the first time Clinton has had strong words for politicians in the North. Last July, he wagged his finger at cameras during a ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House and described politicians there as being like squabbling children in a playground who reacted badly when they couldn’t get their way.
One White House official indicated that the latest analogy, that of drunks as opposed to school children, had been actually related to the president on one of his two visits to Ireland.
"He just felt awful when he found out that people were upset," said the official.