The reason given for the president’s withdrawal is a scheduling conflict. But speculation has arisen that his absence could be linked to the still smoldering controversy over Senator Hillary Clinton’s assessment of her role in the peace process.
The anniversary gathering – which is still expected to attract agreement architect, former senator George Mitchell and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern among other luminaries – is being organized by the Washington, D.C.-based US-Ireland Alliance.
“It is an historic occasion and while we would have welcomed President Clinton’s participation, we are looking forward to this opportunity to bring together the negotiators on one stage for the benefit of the George Mitchell Scholars and their peers on the island of Ireland who will be in the audience,” Alliance president Trina Vargo said in a statement that referred to university students who are awarded annual scholarships funded by the Alliance, and named in honor of Senator Mitchell.
When it was initially announced that President Clinton would attend the event, which is being sponsored in part by the U.S. government, Vargo said that she was sure that the former president’s presence would inspire the young leaders participating in the event to make their own contributions to the process, and to the relationship between the U.S. and the island of Ireland.
For now, however, the absence is fueling rather more speculation than inspiration.
A New York Times report published late last week pointed to the former president’s pulling out from the Belfast commemoration while linking it with the ongoing debate over the foreign policy role of Mrs. Clinton as first lady, particularly with regard to bringing peace to the North.
The report, headlined “Conflicting Takes, Here and Abroad, on Clinton’s Role in Northern Ireland,” stated that brokering the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland was one of President Bill Clinton’s proudest foreign policy achievements.
“But Mr. Clinton has withdrawn from a 10th anniversary commemoration to be held in Belfast next month, adding a new element of intrigue to the controversy over exactly what role his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, played in that peace process,” the times report stated.
It added that both Mr. Clinton’s office and organizers of the event had said his decision not to attend was “unrelated” to the tension between Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, over her experience in foreign policy matters. Aides said the former president withdrew because of a scheduling conflict.
“This event has been in the planning for more than two years and has nothing to do with the U.S. presidential campaign,” Trina Vargo, told the Times.
“But the Northern Ireland accord has moved to the center of an increasingly
acrimonious debate between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton about her experience, which was set off when Mrs. Clinton ran a campaign advertisement asking who would be better equipped to answer an emergency call to the White House at 3
a.m. And it has embroiled political figures on both sides of the Atlantic, whose views have largely broken down on political lines of their own,” the Times report stated.
It added that while on the campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton had on several occasions said she “helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland” while in an interview with National Public Radio “she seemed to go a step further when she said that the role she played was ‘instrumental in ending the decades-long conflict there between Catholics and Protestants.”
The Obama campaign, the paper reported, had responded by accusing Clinton of exaggerating her specific role and general experience.
Some of the sharpest language had come in a memorandum written by Greg Craig, a foreign policy adviser to Obama who, like Vargo, is a former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy and who also served as the director of policy planning in the State Department during the Clinton administration.
“It is a gross overstatement of the facts for her to claim even partial credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland,” Craig wrote in the foreign policy memorandum, which has been distributed to reporters, stated the Times.
Though Mrs. Clinton traveled abroad as first lady and had some contact with Irish women’s groups “at no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that produced the peace,” the paper reported Craig as saying.
The report delved into various recent statements both praising and critical of Senator Clinton. On the criticism side there was the view of former UUP leader David Trimble while words of support were credited to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Sinn F