By John Kelly
Whatever about the "Starr-kness" of his return to the United States, just in time to see "that" report delivered, Bill Clinton’s Irish visit was a major triumph. The amazing thing about the reaction of the puritanical Irish is that we seem capable of exercising much more tolerance and sympathy than some of the erstwhile presidential supporters on Capitol Hill. In fact, our newly discovered sexual maturity, coupled with a willingness to forgive, has surprised many.
Not alone did we witness President Clinton and Hillary, carefully shadowed behind thick sunglasses for the most part, but we also witnessed Bertie Ahern, the Irish taoiseach, taking his place on one of the most public platforms in the world with his partner, Celia Larkin.
There was a time in Ireland when partners were never, ever seen in public, not even on the rare occasions when it was conceded that that they did really exist. Yet nobody, not one single Irish moralist, has dared to pop a tut-tut above the critical parapet.
To use an immortal phrase first uttered by Irish writer Benedict Kiely, there was a time when "sex was only in its infancy in Ireland."
Not any more.
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Talk to almost any Irish person about the Clinton affair, women or men, and they will say, "Wasn’t he an awful eejit?"
There he is, the leader of the foremost nation on earth, brought to his knees by a sexually precocious, very astute 21-year-old. As a result, almost any pronunciation he now utters will be greeted with lewd, knowing looks. The jokes are already legion, even here in puritanical, holy Catholic Ireland. Can anything he now does, or says, be taken seriously?
What a pity — and that is the reaction of the majority of Irish people. .
Irish women reserve their most bitter criticism for Monica Lewinsky. What they don’t say about her leaves little room for imagination. They seem to accept that President Clinton is, well, just a man.
Only a few days after Clinton left Ireland, the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, met the Unionist Party leader and the Leader of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, David Trimble, their first official private meeting ever.
That is a measure of the massive contribution the U.S. president made to what is now the probability of peace in the island of Ireland before the second millennium. No matter how the fates deal with the charismatic leader in the future, his role in modern Ireland should never be forgotten, especially by Irish Americans who may yet sit in judgment on him.
Despite the Belfast meeting, Trimble seems intent on continuing to push his party’s hard-line stance. Decommissioning, they argue, is a prerequisite to the participation of Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Not according to the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
Adams and Sinn Fein are sticking to this point, quite understandably. They argue that it is not required before participation.
Following their meeting, Adams, welcoming the decision to withdraw troop patrols from the streets of Belfast, also called for the removal of the RUC from nationalist areas until the police force is overhauled.
He described the meeting as "cordial and constructive," while Trimble summed it up as being "workmanlike."
Clearly, it was not an event that figured very high on the Richter scale of international public events, but, in the sundered island of Ireland, where taboos have to be pried like briars from an Aran sweater, it was a very important encounter indeed.
No matter what Trimble may insist about decommissioning in public, he has obviously helped to open the door for Sinn Fein to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is a good thing and a move for which he deserves real credit. As Sen. George Mitchell conceded in the earliest stages of the peace process, a Northern Ireland assembly without a Sinn Fein presence would be worth absolutely nothing.
What has to happen between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, and what has already happened on the ground between some of the opposing paramilitary groups, is that they will have to learn to live together. Otherwise, further obscenities like the Omagh explosion are inevitable.
The SDLP leader, John Hume, has continually described the North as a patch of earth. Who really needs, or wants to live, in a burned out, barren piece of territory where the entire population is the common loser? What good is a patch of earth without its people?
So, where will it go from here?
In the immediate future, perhaps even within days, we can expect that many of the graves of the "disappeared," a polite euphemism for executed IRA victims, including informers, members of the British security forces, loyalists and plain innocents, will be unearthed.
General John de Chastelain, charged with the supervision of the decommissioning, in company with Martin McGuinness, nominated to the committee by Sinn Fein, will be introduced to representatives of the IRA at secret locations, if indeed, he has not already met them. Discussion will lead to subsequent evidence of decommissioning on the part of the IRA. This will develop in tandem with the peace process. The Armalite will not be completely forsaken for the ballot box, not at this stage.
A report on the reform of the RUC is already underway, conducted by the former British Governor of Hong Kong. Clearly, the signals are being transmitted and are understood. Each progressive move by one side will be matched by the other.
If Trimble and Adams did indeed have a cordial, constructive and workmanlike meeting, as each insisted, and if Adams does understand the problems that Trimble has to deal with, as he claims he does, the peace process is already much further down the road than many may suspect.
And, for that, President Bill Clinton, whatever course his future may take, must be hugely thanked. The Irish people are sure to welcome him back any time.