By Susan Falvella-Garraty
AIR FORCE ONE — Like a concerned physician, President Clinton returned to Ireland last week to see how Northern Ireland was taking to the peace and progress prescription he wrote in 1995.
Beleaguered by scandal at home, Clinton’s trip was at times eclipsed by developments unrelated to his work on the peace process.
But Clinton did not allow such distractions divert him from the main purpose of his Irish trip: boosting the peace process.
Clinton gave his first post-North visit interview aboard Air Force One to the Echo. The aircraft was en-route from Dublin to Shannon.
Clinton was thoughtful and relaxed as he spoke of the role he has played in the pursuit for peace in Northern Ireland. His demeanor, however, was not reflected in his face, which was drawn, his eyes rimmed with deep circles.
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Clinton indicated that his meeting at Stormont with the new Assembly members had greatly impressed him.
“They know what they’ve got to do,” Clinton said. “They showed us . . . when I walked the hall in Stormont how important it is to work together. That’s what you have to do. It’s really important, these last steps.”
Clinton looked wistful when he recalled the “magic” of his triumphant 1995 visit.
“Ninety-five was more like a . . . it was a more celebratory moment.” And perhaps attesting the strain and pressure in his present day life, Clinton, the great communicator, left several sentences unfinished, or fished for the right word during his conversation.
Reminiscing again about his ’95 visit, Clinton said his arrival in Belfast had motivated all the parties to start serious and ground-breaking negotiations.
“The peace process is much further along this time, but it’s also at a critical juncture,” he said.
True, this time around, there were no provocative initiatives, such as issuing a visa to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, that defined the climate of the 1995 visit.
But White House officials said Clinton was asked by unionist and nationalist leaders during his trip to assist in the months ahead, specifically on the establishment of a human rights commission and on reforming the Northern Ireland police force, the RUC.
The president himself said he and his staff were helping the new Assembly to get up and running.
Violence not over
Clinton said the coming months would be difficult. In several of his speeches on the ground, he had indicated that he expected future bombings and various types of violence.
On board Air Force One, however, he expressed the belief that it was compliance with the Good Friday accord that would capture the prize of peace for the people in the North.
“They’ve got to fully comply with everything in that agreement. I think eventually they’ll get there. They’ll do it,” he said.
He said he was touched by the people who came out in the rain in Dublin on Friday to watch his and Mrs. Clinton’s motorcade blast past.
Clinton appeared relaxed as he perched himself on the arm of one of the oversized airline seats that line the compartments of Air Force One.
He wore a gray cardigan sweater bought by his wife, Hillary, during the interview. The president of the United States, or POTUS, as he is denoted on the schedules the White House keeps for his events, munched on tortilla chips and salsa.
His subdued manner picked up considerably when talk turned to golf. He bantered about the advice he had received prior to the long-awaited game that would include the former tanaiste, Dick Spring.
The advice for a blustery day on the links? “Don’t take out the woods and stick to the three iron for the whole course,” a smiling president said.
“I’m sort of laid back, I’ll just be glad to be through it,” he said — predicting he would lose a lot of balls during the course of the day.
Prior to his departure from Dublin, Clinton received a book from U2’s lead singer, Bono, and other members of the band.
The book, “History of Dublin,” is the second the U.S. leader has received from the rock star. In 1995, Bono gave him a book of William Butler Yeats poetry and inscribed it with: “This guy wrote some good lines too.”
“They’re nice people. He’s a smart man,” Clinton said.
Clinton chose to keep the increasingly rare in-flight interview on the topic of Ireland, a subject on which he truly seemed fully informed and focused.
Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, had to actually shoo the president back to his on-board office, since the plane had actually landed and the welcoming delegation at Shannon airport was waiting for him to deplane.
Unlike Boris Yeltsin, Clinton had no trouble making it to the tarmac.
The door was opened during the interview for yet another presidential visit to Ireland. When the golf course of Lahinch in County Clare was described to him, the president responded: “I want to go there, too!”