By Susan Falvella Garraty
BELFAST — The story of President Clinton and his Irish peace quest has almost passed into the history books.
But Clinton’s visit to Ireland last week will be remembered for what he has accomplished in previous years and what can still be accomplished by Clinton merely being on Irish soil.
Hours after returning to the U.S., the fruits of Clinton’s labors in Ireland apparently bore fruit again.
Loyalist paramilitary groups, whose murderous feud over the last six months had seriously destabilized the peace process, announced an end to their fighting on Friday.
"I am delighted that loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have today committed themselves to an open-ended cessation of hostilities and developed peaceful mechanisms to address disputes that may arise," Clinton said in a statement.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The governments and the parties involved in the Northern Ireland peace process have privately linked the end of the feud to last week’s three-day Clinton visit to Ireland and England.
The White House received calls of thanks for helping to bring about the end of the feud and all sides agreed that the Clinton visit had also added the "right atmosphere" for progress in the peace process over the coming weeks.
That atmosphere was clearly evident during Clinton’s visit to the Belfast Odyssey sporting arena on Wednesday.
The accompanying speeches by First Minister David Trimble, Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were reminiscent of Clinton’s 1998 visit to the city’s new Waterfront Hall.
One loyalist heckler did interrupt the president, who brushed him aside with an appeal: "If you let me finish, then I’ll listen to you."
Clinton then directed words at remaining arms-toting militants from both sides. Peace could not be achieved without "putting all arms fully, finally and forever beyond use," Clinton said.
"The enemies of peace don’t need your approval," Clinton told several thousand people at the rally. "All they need is apathy."
Earlier in the day, Clinton’s convivial mood was dampened as if by the ubiquitous Belfast drizzle when he was confronted by Unionists in the Great Hall of the Stormont Assembly building.
They wore cross faces and had clenched hands. The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr. and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party’s Cedric Wilson huddled with fellow party members as President Clinton spoke with the various politicians gathered to greet him and Blair.
"I asked whether he thought it was right that terrorists sit in government and raise funds in America," Wilson said to many of the reporters present.
"He turned to me and said, ‘Are you suggesting I am soft on terrorists,’ "Wilson said of his conversation with Clinton.
"I told him that indeed I thought he was and he turned his head and walked away rather annoyed."
Clinton’s aides would not comment directly on the exchange between the two men. Privately, one White House official said: "The president’s enthusiasm for these efforts are never dimmed by ill-informed people. Those that do not listen to the people of Northern Ireland, like Bill Clinton has, will find themselves without a constituency and out of step and quite alone if they think they can repair to the old ways of exclusion."
The president’s theme for those who chose to listen in Belfast was a request for a rejection of "bitter old divisions" and a recognition of the need to stick to the Good Friday peace accord’s tenets.
Prime Minister Blair said that despite some gains made during the Clinton visit, issues remained. "Policing, on how we put the weapons beyond use and take the guns out of politics, on how we normalize our security," he said.
Clinton and Blair had discussed the issue during the night spent by the Clintons at Blair’s official country residence, Chequers.
"The President knows the importance of an acceptable police force for everyone in Northern Ireland and said so," one American official said.
Later, White House spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said that Clinton would closely watch the developments in Northern Ireland until the end of his presidency, and beyond.
"He has an abiding personal interest and truly believes that what is in the works in Ireland is a model for future areas of global conflict," Crowley said.