By Susan Falvella Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the pieces of the Good Friday peace agreement finally falling into place, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton may visit Northern Ireland in a matter of days.
White House and British officials have confirmed that Clinton is considering a short trip to Ireland in two weeks if all continues to go well politically.
Included in the initial planning is the possibility of a return by the Clintons to Belfast.
This possible visit would coincide almost exactly with the four-year anniversary of the Clintons’ first visit to Ireland and their historic lighting of Belfast’s Christmas tree, a gesture that to many symbolized a new period of hope that peace would prevail over violence.
Clinton, on a two-week swing through Europe, has been in constant contact with the various governments and parties to the GFA.
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Clinton held private talks with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Istanbul, Turkey, last Friday and followed this with a direct appeal to the Ulster Unionist Party to stand by its leader, David Trimble.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Clinton said. He pointedly asked that Trimble’s commitment to go into government, following an appointment of a representative to the decommissioning body by the IRA, be supported by the rank and file of his party.
Clinton and Ahern were in Turkey for a 54-nation security summit. The two men spoke for nearly a half-hour about the recently devised plan to devolve power directly to a Northern Ireland Assembly Executive and place the IRA on track to hand in weapons.
Ahern praised the work of both Clinton and the chairman of the talks and review process, former Sen. George Mitchell. He said he had confidence in the now established process. “This is an opportunity which most people thought we would never get,” said the taoiseach.
Clinton said he, like everyone else involved with the talks, is looking to the UUP party meeting Saturday to see whether party members would back the carefully choreographed process that would allow the IRA to start handing in weapons the same day as a convening of the Executive.
“I hope his party will stay with him, because he has been absolutely pivotal,” Clinton said of Trimble. It is because of Mr. Trimble’s “courageous decisions” that the process appeared this time to be headed to a successful conclusion, the president added.
During the course of Clinton’s European trip, White House officials gave serious consideration of a presidential stop-over in Ireland to offer congratulations on the apparent compromise. Officials eventually decided that the president’s presence on Irish soil this week would be premature, given the difficulty Trimble faces in getting a solid majority of the UUP behind him at Saturday’s conference.
However, the suggestion that Clinton might land in Ireland on his return to the U.S. was immediately replaced by the suggestion that he might make the special one-day trip to Belfast a few days from now in order to underline both the U.S. role and his own continuing support for a lasting political settlement.
Meanwhile, Clinton raised the Irish peace process again Tuesday in a speech delivered to U.S. troops in Kosovo. And just as he did in Ottawa last month, the president uttered a phrase that was certain to raise the hackles of some Irish and Irish Americans.
“We may be about to have a final breakthrough in the Irish civil war,” Clinton said.
Last month, Clinton’s remark that he had spent an enormous amount of time trying to help the people of Northern Ireland “get over 600 years of religious fights” angered many nationalists who see the North troubles as being rooted in conflicting national allegiances involving not just the Irish but also the British.
In continued U.S. political reaction to the latest North developments, meanwhile, Sen. Edward Kennedy said he was “very encouraged” by the progress being made. “The parties to the conflict are sincerely seeking to bridge the gaps that divide them and move the process forward,” Kennedy said.
Rep. Joe Crowley also welcomed what he described as the “positive outcome” of the Mitchell review of the Good Friday accord.
“While this is not yet a done deal, I have confidence that the members of the Ulster Unionist Party will accept the compromise worked out with Sen. George Mitchell and see the wisdom of a lasting peace.”