President Clinton’s first visit to Ireland was a triumph. His second was more sobering, coming as it did in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing. This week’s visit, his third and final as president is a, well, we’re not quite sure as yet. Some are suggesting that it is merely a lap of honor for services rendered to the cause of peace in Ireland and a boost on the side for that same cause, now seen to be running out of steam a bit. But it has to be more than the sum of these.
Clinton has not just committed himself as president to the need for a lasting settlement in Ireland. He has committed the office of the presidency. It would be a foolish successor indeed, whoever that might be, who does not look at Clinton’s efforts on behalf of peace and justice in Ireland without seeing first and foremost a worthy task for the presidency to embrace.
Ireland’s Troubles, though never a strategic or geographic issue for the world’s only superpower, has a historical dimension to it that dwarfs just about every other conflict on the planet. For that reason alone, Clinton has made presidential history by his work in Washington, by his three visits to Ireland, by his clear personal commitment to a conflict that was crying out for outside mediation, even when none was being actively sought.
It matters little that the conflict has not yet been assigned, as the saying goes, to the trashbin of history. Such an accomplishment is not entirely within the exclusive powers of even an American president. What matters most is that Clinton took an interest, devised a strategy and adhered to that strategy despite an avalanche of distractions, both domestic and foreign, that was the hallmark of his eight years in office. For that, the Irish, wherever they may be in the world, owe Bill Clinton a debt of thanks, one that can never be fully repaid.