By Susan Falvella-Garraty
BELFAST — "Too many people have already died." This was President Clinton’s stark message to the people of Northern Ireland as he used the backdrop of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to kick off his second Irish visit in less than three years.
Addressing an invited audience, Clinton on Thursday warned the people of the North not to lose the unique opportunity for peace that exists.
"It is your will for peace which has brought your country to this moment of hope," he said. "Do not let it slip away. It will not come again in your lifetimes."
Clinton’s speech was more pragmatic than uplifting. He predicted that "the terror of Omagh," in which 29 people died and more than 200 were injured in an Aug. 15 car bombing by the Real IRA, might not be the last bomb of the Troubles.
"The question is not whether there will be more bombs and more attempts to undo with violence the verdict of the ballot box; there well may be," he said. "The question is not whether tempers will flare and debates will be divisive. They certainly will be.
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"The question is how will you react to it all, to the violence. How will you deal with your differences? Can the bad habits and brute forces of yesterday break your will for tomorrow’s peace? That is the question."
Clinton said the new Assembly would have to be driven by courage and reconciliation. Dropping his voice and pointedly emphasizing his words, he said this needed to happen "in very specific ways."
The president’s Belfast speech followed a day after First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton landed in the city.
On Wednesday, she had delivered a keynote speech at the Vital Voices women’s conference. Mrs. Clinton spoke for 40 minutes about the rights and achievements of women throughout the world. She received a standing ovation from the 450-strong audience.
"If you listen you can hear the voices of women who withstood jeers and threats to make themselves heard in a political world once reserved primarily for men," she told the crowd.
Mrs. Clinton did not tread on specifics of the current negotiations in the North. She drew loud cheers when she announced: "I’ll take any excuse to come back to Belfast!"
Following her speech, Mrs. Clinton was received at Belfast City Hall. "This is truly a special moment for me," she told the Echo. "The smiles of everyone mean so much to me right now."
Belfast, she added, put Northern Ireland and the women of Northern Ireland on the world map. Nothing can compare, she said, to the powerful voices heard in Belfast over the last few days. "There is a powerful chorus calling for women to become full democrats in a secure Northern Ireland."
But women were not providing the only chorus. On Thursday, as President Clinton met delegations from the political parties during 90 minutes of private discussions at Stormont, he was lambasted by Democratic Unionist Party member Ian Paisley, Jr.
"It was what you’d expect," said Press Secretary Mike McCurry in a briefing following the meeting.
White House sources said that other than the usual vitriolic semantics dished out by unionist hardliners, the president had seen and heard what he wanted during the talks.
"Just getting them all in there, underscored by personal commitments made to the president, made this a very important moment," a White House aide said.
The president said Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’s statement earlier in the week, indicating that violence was a thing of the past, was "music to the ears of people all across the world" and paved the way for further progress.
The president himself, meanwhile, outlined the first issue which he believed had to be addressed. It was "to decommission the weapons of war that are obsolete in Northern Ireland at peace."
He said the Assembly needed to move forward with the formation of an executive council. The police force had to be adapted so that it earned the confidence, respect and support of all the people. The concept of "street justice" had to be ended, because defining crime, applying punishment and enforcing the law had to be left to the people’s representatives, the courts and the police.
Clinton said the Assembly must pursue early release for prisoners whose organizations had truly abandoned violence, and help them find a productive, constructive place in society.
Assembly members, he said, faced difficult and sometimes wrenching decisions, but that these would have to be made. He said the members owed it to their country to nurture the best in their people by showing them the best in themselves.
He pledged that in the months and years ahead, the U.S. would continue to walk the road of renewal with the people of the North. "As you work to change the face and future of Northern Ireland, you can count on America."
The most poignant moment of the North leg of the visit came in Omagh. Clinton comforted, encouraged hesitant politicians and implored everyone to seize a chance that would never come again. "It’s your will for peace that has brought your country to this moment of hope," he said, then warned: "Don’t let it slip away. It will not come again in our lifetimes."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, praised Clinton, the man and his words. "No other U.S. President has done more for peace here than you," he said. "|The people of Northern Ireland owe you a deep debt of gratitude."
The Clintons concluded their North visit in Armagh. The president spoke primarily of the need for the North to find peace and to shine as an example for other parts of the world in conflict. Northern Ireland, he said, was moving "from the deep freeze of despair to the warm sunlight of peace."
The Armagh crowd was smaller than expected. Officials had made arrangements for up to 25, 000 to attend. The actual figure was closer to 5,000. Those that were there said they were struck most by Clinton’s chosen theme that the peace process in Northern Ireland could some day become a blueprint for other troubled nations.
In the Republic
In Dublin on Friday, Clinton met with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, attended an event at the Royal College of Surgeons and visited the Gateway 2000 computer plant just outside the city. It was in Dublin that the president described Ireland as an example to the world, a beacon of peace, partnership and prosperity.
Perhaps the high point of the trip came in Limerick. After spending the night in Adare Manor, the president was made Freeman of the City. It was also here that he gave what many believed was his best speech of the trip.
"As we mourn the losses of Omagh and the three little boys who were killed and taken from their parent’s arms, remember there will still be efforts by the enemies of peace to break your will, to get you to turn back, to get you to lose faith."
"Don’t do it – remember what it was like when you were here on this day," he said.
With his appearance finished, Clinton made a two-hour car drive to Ballybunion for his long-promised golf game at the famed links. Clinton teed off about 3:15 p.m. and the crowd applauded a shot that went right near the cemetery that guards part of the first hole. But not into it. A metaphor, perhaps, for the Clinton presidency.