Category: Archive

Clinton reflects on Irish policy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella-Garraty

President Bill Clinton stood in the galley of Air Force One on the flight back from his pre-Christmas visit to Ireland and Britain. Sipping a Diet Coke and clearly tired after another up-front and personal effort to move the peace process to a higher level, Clinton spoke about his final visit to Ireland as president and the advice on the peace process he would give his successor in the White House. Up close, Bill Clinton doesn’t loom quite as large as he does on TV. Dressed in a gray fleece pullover and casual slacks, his face and hands have a certain daintiness to them.

Echo reporters have been with Clinton on all of his visits to Ireland and were with him when he first discussed the Northern Ireland Troubles as a presidential candidate in 1992. Clinton remembers stuff like this, even when he is clearly tired.

"The Irish Echo, yes," Clinton recalled, "they were there at the beginning, my first meeting in 1992, we had that little meeting, you know. And I thought, it makes a lot of sense to me. I will do something on this."

"This," of course, meaning peace for Northern Ireland.

Bill Clinton’s principle purpose for making a third presidential trip to Ireland in December was to cement the advances in peace Northern Ireland has achieved since his first direct intervention almost seven years ago when he allowed Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams a visa to enter the United States.

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"All the parties that are actually involved in the government and the peace process that support the Good Friday Accords, are all happy and we’re inching along," he said, adding that he believed his latest visit had improved the atmosphere.

"And they may get another breakthrough," he said.

As Clinton spoke, his press secretary and other aides exchanged uneasy glances. It was evident the president had nothing but time on his hands with over three hours left until arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. Time to talk.

Clinton, however, would not discuss the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party, whose leader, Cedric Wilson, had challenged Clinton’s personal commitment in the effort to extinguish terrorism when the two met at Stormont earlier in the week.

Reflecting on the visit, one senior administration advisor had said privately of the DUP and NIUP that "no one who has any sense can really take them seriously any more — they’re dinosaurs who will eventually become extinct."

British and Irish officials agree, but contradict published reports of a proposed "sequencing" of gives and takes by unionists — all of them — and republicans.

"What Clinton offered was a timetable that has everyone acting at the same time," said one British official who was echoed by another senior Irish official familiar with the discussions.

"I hate to use an overused description, but it will be a case of ‘jumping in together’ with the British removing troops and the IRA handing in weapons," the official said.

These background discussions resonated in Clinton’s own comments on the flight home.

Asked whether the prominent issues will be taken care of by the time he leaves office in January, Clinton responded: "I think they’re moving on them. Whether they will be resolved or not, I don’t know. But the main thing is, I think every time you do something and it really builds confidence and mutual trust, at least if both sides think that they want to make it, then you increase the likelihood of success."

Clinton repeatedly said he believed that the process was working and that "the time deadlines don’t matter so much."

He also said he did not think any further work, in an official capacity, would be required of him once he leaves office on Jan. 20.

"I need to get a little sleep here," he said. "I’ve worked pretty hard for the last eight years, for the last 27 years, and I’m going to just — I want to try to be a useful citizen."

That, he said, included supporting his wife, Hillary, in her position as senator from a state, New York, with a large Irish-American constituency.

"I’ve got a lot of things to do, and they will eventually work this out if they just give it enough time."

Clinton’s comments in the galley were the first since Vice President Al Gore had conceded the election, thus allowing George W. Bush to be the designated 43rd American president.

Advice to Bush

On Ireland, Clinton offered some advice to President-elect Bush.

"Just sort of stick with the policy and work with the leaders, because now, you have a consensus in Great Britain and in Ireland for continuing to work with the parties in Northern Ireland. . . . There will be specific calls along the way they will have to make. Maybe they will make them the same way I would, maybe they won’t. But that’s not as important as the general trend there. Because there are some problems that are unresolved where time is running against you, so you might as well go ahead and bite the bullet and do it.

"For people in the Republic, they live with sort of an open wound with all this trouble in Northern Ireland. But for people in Northern Ireland, it’s just being able to get in your car and not worrying about going down the street and having a bomb go off. It’s worth a lot."

Clinton and the United States government recognize that the Republic in particular is coping with community tensions above and beyond what has been so evident in Northern Ireland.

Before Clinton’s Dec. 12-14 visit, the U.S. Department of State published information on Ireland that was distributed to all members of the president’s entourage. The Crime Information portion stated: "Although Ireland has a low rate of violent crime, incidents in which non-nationals have been victims of assault have increased. The numbers of racially motivated attacks in particular have risen in the past year."

Clinton voiced concern over the reception many immigrants to Ireland have received as an economy flush with jobs beckons other nationalities seeking a better life.

"It’s going to be a whole new challenge for them," he said of immigration to Ireland. "Saint Patrick was an Englishman. He was practically the last significant immigrant into Ireland, if you think about it. I mean, he was an Englishman."

Clinton advised Ireland to prepare for the sick, the poor, the unwanted, because those without means will hear of Ireland’s fortune and try to become a part of the roaring Celtic Tiger.

"The Irish will work through this," Clinton said. "They’re basically incredibly generous spirited people . . . and with the economic success of the Irish Republic now, and the romantic appeal of Ireland, and the great lifestyle — and Dublin is a fabulous city, you know; it’s big enough to be fascinating and not too big to be overwhelming — they’re going to have a lot of people who want to live there.

"I think the Irish will do fine with this. They will just have to work through it. I don’t think people should be too judgmental or alarmist because this is an experience they’re dealing with that the Americans had to begin dealing with at the turn of the [20th] century, when we had our big wave of immigrants. . . . I think it will be quite amazing 10 years from now to go there and see all these people with different colored skin quoting Yeats’s poetry."

No official role

The integration of different cultures and religions is important to Clinton. In fact, he said he was "genetically predisposed" to help work on the Troubles in Northern Ireland because his Irish ancestors, who lived in Ulster, had been a mix of intermarried Protestants and Catholics.

That said, Clinton rejected reports and suggestions of him playing an official post-presidential role in the peace process.

"The essential thing about democracy is that no one is indispensable," he said. "That’s why you have a system like this. And, you know, whenever you’re the first person to do something, people have a feeling about you. That’s a nice thing for me personally."

He added that he didn’t think Northern Ireland’s political parties would need him in the future.

As the days grow closer to the end of his presidency, Clinton provided some reflections on his work on behalf of peace. He said his efforts in Ireland signaled to leaders in Europe during the post-Cold War period that the U.S. remained concerned for the continent.

"When the United States is involved, even in a small place, it has big psychological significance for the entire continent, it makes a big difference," he said.

"It’s obvious what was at stake in Bosnia and Kosovo, but in Northern Ireland, it said to the rest of Europe that the U.S. still cares about Europe, we’re still involved with them."

On a lighter note, he said fondness for Ireland is a Clinton family trait.

"Chelsea loves Dublin. Chelsea loves Ireland. Chelsea loved Ireland before I ever got involved in all of this. She was reading Irish historical novels when she was a kid," he said, laughing.

Asked if he’d like to see her perhaps do post-graduate work in Ireland once she finished her studies at Stanford next year, he said: "I don’t know. But if she did it would be fine with me. It would give me an excuse to go back."

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