US President Bill Clinton meets with Northern Ireland leaders Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble (Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images)

The miracle of peace

Bill Clinton’s legacy in Northern Ireland

Artillery Row

Owning the narrative must be the modern-day politician’s dream. Seeing Bill Clinton in Belfast this week, it was hard to begrudge him an extraordinary sense of just that when it comes to peace in Northern Ireland. He dared, he defied, at times he demanded, and he now remembers the Good Friday Agreement, 25 years on, as being amongst his greatest achievements.

Yes, the union today between Catholic and Protestant may be ever-so fragile in the fractious politics of Stormont. Nonetheless, watching the ageing President Clinton greet well-wishers and walk the streets of a city that was once a battle zone, it made you realise how far Ulster had come since the dark days when he launched his unlikely bid for negotiation.

The party tucked into a very Irish meal — boiled corned beef and cabbage

Much as we now see British and American politicians on the same page — think Clinton and Tony Blair this week — back then Northern Ireland yielded a political dogfight that produced the unthinkable: a serious breakdown in that much-vaunted “special relationship” between Washington D.C. and London.

As a White House correspondent in the 1990s, one recalls the standoff between Britain and the United States that the young President Clinton triggered when he floated the idea of one Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA’s political wing, visiting New York in 1994. In the morning, you could hear the Clinton team on Pennsylvania Avenue express the belief that Adams could be a partner in peace, that Adams could be “turned” from a man of violence to a serious negotiator. 

Come the afternoon, you’d visit the British Embassy up the road on Massachusetts Avenue, and you’d be treated to a barrage of dismay and fury. Ambassador Robin Renwick, a veteran of South Africa and the fight to free Nelson Mandela, was no shy, retiring diplomat. Back home, Downing Street drew the line. “Gerry Adams is the leader of a movement that has murdered thousands,” was the message: “As well as a member of the Royal Family, they even tried to kill a British Prime Minister.”

As a correspondent, you knew where the fight was to be decided: up on Capitol Hill, inside the US Congress and Senate. There stood Ireland’s modern-day political army, bending the ear of the President and saying “no thanks” to the Queen’s Birthday party at the Embassy. Senators Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Chris Dodd and one Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, an intellectual titan with respect on all sides of that house, were involved. 

“You Brits don’t understand, in these United States the Irish are not peasants, and navvies, as you call them, we are lawyers, politicians, bankers, leaders,” Moynihan told me as the standoff had Downing Street calling the White House almost every day to protest. I tried to tell the Senator that I had forebears from Cork and Bantry Bay. “So you’re the great-great grandson of serfs who suffered so, famine, probably genocide, never forget that,” he replied.

What followed, as Adams et al made the journey across the Atlantic, could at times be bizarre theatre. Think Gerry Adams of the Irish Republican Army visiting Washington for the first time, staying at the Phoenix Park Hotel, painted vividly green, across the road from the Congress — keen to see the city, almost as the innocent tourist, and yours truly in need of TV footage showing him doing so.

“Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, too,” I told him as we took him to the Lincoln Memorial down by the Washington Mall one early morning. “Really?” replied Adams, with an incredulous stare. “Not a Democrat?” He stopped himself, and that trademark smile of his, such a valuable weapon in Washington, creased his face. “Lincoln freed people from slavery; we republicans know a thing or two about that.”

In time, Bill Clinton would break down one barrier after another

That day, Adams enjoyed the kind of welcome at the White House that had folks at the British Embassy quietly spit, with President Clinton shaking his hand at the St Patrick’s Day luncheon, joking that nobody would question his wish to have a glass of Guinness as the party tucked into a very Irish meal — boiled corned beef and cabbage, boiled potatoes.

“This is going to work,” Clinton told the assembled Senators and Congressmen, pumping his fist as he spelled out his determination to bring the parties together. Peter King, a Long Island congressman who acted as chaperone to Gerry Adams, saw the future that day. “Bill Clinton dedicated himself to the peace process, the way he embraced Gerry told the Brits there was no turning back for him, and Adams got the message — make peace or else.”

In time, Bill Clinton would break down one barrier after another. Witness the way he invited the late Martin McGuinness, unashamedly a man of the years of violence, to join Adams in Washington as the peace process gathered momentum, and the Clinton White House became the go-to mediator. By then the Embassy had switched gears. “Clinton never wobbled on Ireland, as he did so often elsewhere; he was stubborn, bloody-minded, and he was proved right,” to quote one UK diplomat from that period.

“To those who criticise me for bringing sworn enemies together, whatever their past record, I say this: only enemies make real peace,” Clinton told us correspondents as the clock ticked on the Good Friday agreement in 1998 (in the midst, should be noted, of the scandal over his relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky). It spoke volumes, to my mind, that he attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry in 2017.

Just glimpse Belfast and Ulster this week, such a contrast to the province I worked in as a young journalist in the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles. The armoured cars and barbed wire were nowhere to be seen. An open border stood between the north and south. The Sinn Fein of Gerry Adams is the lead political party. Even King Charles was welcome, and safely so, shortly after the Queen’s death. Bill Clinton can be forgiven for celebrating such legacy. As Peter King put it, “round of applause, please, for the man who, whatever his faults, who delivered a diplomatic miracle”.

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