By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A major breakthrough on Northern Ireland eluded President Clinton as he marked his last St. Patrick’s Day in the White House.
Despite emotional appeals to the assembled Irish and British leaders, Clinton was unable to bridge the political gap.
Clinton spoke dramatically at the American Ireland Fund Dinner Thursday evening. Departing from his prepared text, he spoke in hushed tones. "I am more burdened by the fact that I have not found an answer for the present stalemate," he said, "but I will say this: I have loved Ireland."
Clinton pleaded to the party leaders to put aside their differences and negotiate their way back to a functioning government. "Whatever the differences, it’s not worth another life — not one," he said.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley Jr. and a fellow DUP representative were hustled away by Secret Service officers after interrupting Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s introduction of Clinton at the dinner.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The two unfurled a banner that read, "St. Patrick Says No to Sitting in Government with Killers," and shouted before being led away and handcuffed in the back of the hall. Both were released about an hour later.
Moves on the part of the British government and the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, added a conciliatory tone to the two days of talks. British Northern Secretary of State Peter Mandelson announced that the last battalion of British troops was to be removed from Belfast. On Friday, Trimble indicated his intention to become more flexible on entering government without actual IRA decommissioning.
"We are prepared to be involved in a fresh sequence which probably will not involve arms up front," he said.
Trimble said he would agree to go back into government with Sinn Féin as long as a "guaranteed" timetable was offered by the IRA for decommissioning.
At the same time, Trimble stressed the need to "sell" the idea to his party. "I’ve got to be able to persuade the party to do it," he told reporters.
Asked if a declaration by the republican movement that the "war" was over would be enough, Trimble replied: "Obviously it would be significant if they were, even just to say that in their view, the conflict is over."
Mandelson, in announcing the army withdrawal from Belfast, said: "For the first time since 1969, there will be no army battalion resident in Belfast."
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, meanwhile, spoke to reporters outside the U.S. capitol Thursday afternoon. His comments, made after the annual St. Patrick’s Day Speaker’s luncheon, were as grim as the gray sky overhead.
"It’s a good thing, but far less than expected," Adams said of the troop withdrawal.
"People can get a wee bit cynical that these movements are left till a very high-profile moment like St. Patrick’s Day. It’s very convenient that this can be announced now."
Whatever about cynicism, Mandelson was clearly impatient at the British Embassy’s St. Patrick’s Day luncheon. "We just can’t keep coming back here for St. Patrick’s Day slapping each other on the back," he told guests. No Sinn Féin representatives were at the lunch, as had been the case in years past.
Clinton later welcomed Ahern for a private discussion at the White House before the onslaught of social events.
Following the traditional presentation of shamrock, Ahern said that in addition to a statement agreeing to a formal declaration by republicans that violence is over, a similar statement indicating a commitment to unqualified democracy would be necessary to restore confidence to those disappointed with the British government’s decision to suspend the executive.
"The good news about Ireland is that even though the institutions have been taken down over the difference between the parties on decommissioning, no one wants to go back to the way it was or give up the peace process," Clinton said at the presentation.
Good news apart, any chance for a break in the peace process impasse on this St. Patrick’s Day diminished as the day wore on. As it did, Clinton met with Trimble, Gerry Adams, SDLP leader John Hume, and his deputy, Seamus Mallon.
Entering the White House for his meeting, Adams said he was skeptical of the offers from Trimble and Mandelson. "Irish Americans are angry," he said. "When some politicians come here, they put in softer tones for the audience here what really is a hard line."
Just before the evening’s presidential reception, the visiting leaders joined for a photo with Clinton. All extended their hand to Clinton but not to one another.
Clinton’s White House remarks took on an air of another emotional appeal for the parties to overcome the impasse.
Ahern said resolving the situation before Easter would require "a determination by all the parties to implement the Good Friday agreement in full, to stop talking about reviews or amendments, just concentrate about what’s already on paper.
"Our biggest concern right now is finding a hall for the party next year," Ahern wisecracked.
Clearly conscious that this was the last St. Patrick’s gathering of the Clinton presidency, Ahern added: "We should never ever forget in the future how good the president and first lady, and the administration have been to us. We’ve been up there with the big issues of the world. I would like to thank you for the amazing hospitality, courtesy, generosity and friendship that you have given to all of the Irish people for the last eight years."