By Jack Holland
In the longest interview that former U.S. President Bill Clinton has ever given on his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, he reveals how during difficulties in the negotiations he used a rock from the moon, which he kept on his desk, as “a metaphor of how I thought people oughta behave.” During a breakdown in the peace process, Clinton relates how he took Unionist leader David Trimble into the office.
“[The rock] was in a vacuum pack and I put it on my table there in front of us so everyone could see it,” Clinton said. “It was carbon dated at 3.6 billion years of age. So I told David, I said, ‘Now whenever people come into this room and get mad at each other, I make them look at that rock and I tell them it’s 3.6 billion years old. We’re all just passing through this life, it will be over quickly, and we might as well calm down and make the most of it.’ ”
The interview will be broadcast as part of a two-part documentary, “Endgame in Ireland”, on PBS on July 7 and 14 at 9 p.m. The documentary was originally shown on BBC 2. It was made by Lap Wing Productions Company, which previously won renown for its story on the breakup of Yugoslavia, “The Death Of Yugoslavia.”
“Endgame in Ireland,” covers the last years of the Northern Ireland conflict and includes interviews with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, among others.
Clinton tells how he was first moved to become interested in Northern Ireland by Bernadette Devlin.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
“I was just moved by her and the whole civil rights issue,” he said. He regrets never having met her.
The former president talks about his role in the unfolding events from 1992 when as a candidate he showed up at the Irish American Presidential Forum in New York.
“I felt like I was being put through an oral exam for a PhD on Irish politics you know and I was afraid I didn’t know enough to answer,” Clinton said. But as events would show, Clinton’s learning curve was steep.
He confirms that when he finally made the decision to grant Gerry Adams a visa, he had to fight off his own State Dept., whose officials were appalled at the idea.
“I was prepared to take the heat from the State Department and from the Justice Department and from the British,” he recalled. But he had just finished a big lunch with Helmut Kohl (“who loved to eat and so do I”) and was afraid he would get indigestion if he agonized over the decision for too long.
“I believed that if we could resolve the question in Northern Ireland, that it would have immense psychological benefits in the rest of the world to help other people resolve their religious and ethnic conflicts,” Clinton said. He granted the visa. But a few months later he was approached again by the then Irish taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, to grant another visa — this time to the old gunrunner and IRA leader Joe Cahill.
“My first reaction is, I thought I’ve already given to this drive here,” Clinton recounts. “Reynolds has quite a sense of humor and so I was able to speak with him in a fairly earthy way. I said, ‘Albert, what in the hell are you getting me into here?’ ”
In the end, he accepted Reynolds’s assurances that Cahill “won’t do anything wrong, he won’t raise money for guns.” He told Clinton, “We’ll get the cease-fire if you do this.” Clinton replied: “I thought we were going to get something if I gave Gerry Adams a visa.” Reynolds was persuasive, however. Cahill got in and a day later, the IRA declared a halt to its military operations.
He recounts how he became directly involved in the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday agreement in April 1998.
“My long-distance involvement in the Irish peace process was complicated by the time difference,” he remembered. “They’d be up in the morning and I’d stay up all night — I felt like a college student pulling an all-nighter.”
The two events he regards as the highlights of his role in the Irish peace process was (or were?) his first trip to Belfast in December 1995 — “I remember all of it as if it were yesterday” — and an encounter with the poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney scribbled down a line from his poem “The Cure of Troy” and handed it to him.
It read: “it was a fortunate wind blew you here.”
“It was the nicest thing that anybody ever did for me,” Clinton said. The poem remains one of his favorites. Its theme, he said, is “basically about how people have to give up their hatreds and their reserves and their anger and just let go sometimes.”
Meanwhile, as the North faces yet another crisis, there might well be another opportunity for Clinton to use his moon rock.