By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — While final confirmation is still awaited, the chances that President Clinton will fly to Northern Ireland in mid-December to add the presidential seal to the new power-sharing Executive firmed up this week.
Clinton had been expected to fly to Panama Dec. 14 to preside over the transfer of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government.
The White House has now scrapped the plan. Asked by a reporter Tuesday why he would not be flying south, Clinton indicated that pressing business elsewhere would detain him.
And that "elsewhere" looks like Ireland. The president, who had no other overseas trip on his schedule for December, told the reporter that he might now have to make another trip before the end of the year and about the time that the canal handover is scheduled.
Asked by another reporter "when" he was going to Ireland, Clinton quipped: "I don’t know. You know, I’d like to go once a month."
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There is now increasing speculation that Clinton will fly to Belfast on or about Dec. 16. Last week, the Echo reported that White House officials were actively considering a presidential visit to Belfast in December if the new Executive was up and running in the wake of approval by the assembly’s largest party, the Ulster Unionist Party.
Last week, White House officials quietly polled Ulster Unionist Party and British government officials about the prospect of Clinton returning for a short victory lap if all went well in the Ulster Unionist Council vote.
"If he goes to Ireland, it would more than likely be a one-day trip," one British official said. "However," the official noted, "no one can have any idea how difficult it is to arrange a one-day presidential trip to Europe — we’ll have to see."
Following the guarded unionist approval of the power-sharing plan last weekend, Clinton issued a statement welcoming the move and congratulating UUP leader David Trimble.
Meets with Mitchell
On Monday, Clinton conferred in the White House with former Sen. George Mitchell, whose patient diplomacy had finally crafted the historical power-sharing agreement between unionists and nationalists.
Clinton and Mitchell greeted the cameras after their meeting with broad smiles and handshakes. Clinton limited his remarks at that point to "it’s a good day," and giving the thumbs-up sign before returning to the Oval Office.
Later, Mitchell said that during the 45-minute meeting with the president he had passed along congratulations "on behalf of the numerous people in Northern Ireland from both sides who have asked me to do so."
But Mitchell also sounded a warning about the possibility of disgruntled members of the more radical paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland resorting to violence to indicate their displeasure with the power-sharing agreement.
"The danger does remain and we hope those that have so far been unwilling to reconcile themselves to a peaceful democratic future will reconsider the overwhelming view of the people of Ireland, both North and South," Mitchell said.
Mitchell first accepted Clinton’s request to moderate the peace talks five years ago. At the time, he thought he was going to stay in Ireland "a few weeks."
Mitchell said it was the overwhelming majority of the people of the North that had propelled the process forward and would not allow the progress to be repealed. "They want this process to succeed and I believe that it will and I will be very much gratified on Thursday when those events occur," he told reporters.
Mitchell said that with the continued threat of violence it would be important to be pragmatic and keep things in perspective.
"Let’s keep in mind, no society in human history has ever been able to achieve the complete absence of violence, including our own American society," Mitchell said.
"Let’s not set for the people of Northern Ireland a standard to which no one else has ever been able to meet. There may be events of that type. They do not represent anywhere near a majority. . . . I think in time this process will move forward and that threat will itself subside, although I recognize that it still exists today."
Officials in Washington are mindful that Saturday’s successful vote showed some significant slippage compared to the more overwhelming "Yes" accorded the Good Friday agreement.
"We know that this is just another step in some very careful choreography and that the events of next week will take even more careful tending," a White House official said.
The Clinton administration’s foreign-policy advisors closely monitored the run-up to Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Council vote. Clinton’s advisors strove to assist with the process from the White House Situation Room, the 24-hour communication center that grapples with many of the world’s most difficult foreign-policy issues.
Clinton telephoned UUP leader, David Trimble late Saturday afternoon.
The ups and downs associated with the peace process have made the White House wary of any premature celebration. Clinton’s congratulatory statement said that the council vote allowed for Northern Ireland’s government to be placed "back directly in the hands of all people."
"I pledge the support of the United States to all those who are helping to make a brighter future for Northern Ireland possible," Clinton said.
Next Monday, meanwhile, the recently appointed British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, will visit Washington and New York.
Against this backdrop, there has been a broad welcome from Irish America for the Ulster Unionist decision to go ahead with power sharing.
Sen. Edward Kennedy described the move as a "dramatic and giant step." The peace process, Kennedy said, was still fragile "but at last it is back on track."
The Irish American Unity Conference wondered if all the "drama" was "really necessary" but still welcomed "the prospect of the terms of the Belfast agreement finally being implemented."
AOH National President, Thomas Gilligan, also welcomed the unionist decision while hoping that "this Christmas season will see more of the civil discourse and cooperation and less of the staged performances."
Rep. Joe Crowley hailed the unionist move but added that he was not happy with the party’s February deadline for disarmament. The Good Friday accord had called for IRA arms decommissioning by May of next year, Crowley said, while cautioning that there were still "many hurdles to cross" in Northern Ireland.
Further praise for the breakthrough came from former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, Irish National Caucus President Fr. Sean McManus and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who said that all New Yorkers welcomed the vote that gave new life to the peace process.