This week President Clinton made his fifth trip to Derry demonstrating his ongoing commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland. President Clinton walked the Peace Bridge with Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume and his wife, Pat. He helped launch a new book, “Peacemaking in the Twenty-First Century,” celebrating the Tip O’Neill peace lectures given at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus, to which he contributed a lecture along with others including John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Kofi Annan.
President Clinton then addressed a public audience of some 3,000 people in the Guildhall Square of the city, along with the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and members of other political parties, civil society groups, and Tom O’Neill the son of former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. President Clinton told the crowd “never underestimate the impact that this small place has had on the large world because of that peace agreement…people want to know how it was done. You have inspired the world”. The President pointed out that other societies are looking to Northern Ireland as an example of how violence can be transformed into peace. The recent ceasefire by the Basque-separatist group ETA, and the beginning of decommissioning there, is an example of a society that looked to the Northern Ireland model.
But despite the phenomenal progress and what Northern Ireland has taught others, President Clinton also noted “there are still issues that remain unresolved in the 19 years since the ceasefire and 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement”. The President did not highlight specific issues but his message was well timed. The recent all-party talks facilitated by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan aimed at addressing the outstanding issues of the peace process, including how to resolve differences about flags, parades and dealing with the past, did not bear fruit.
President Clinton understands the challenges facing the Northern Ireland peace process more than most. He has been an advocate for peace for decades, dating back to his days as the Governor of Arkansas. Campaigning for the presidency in 1992, he promised to appoint a peace envoy to Northern Ireland and said “I think sometimes we are too reluctant to engage ourselves in a positive way because of our long-standing special relationship with Great Britain and also because it seemed such a thorny problem…I think the United States is now in a position to think about positive change”.
Decades of political violence had left more than 3,600 people dead in Northern Ireland, but the United States (US) largely stayed away from the conflict. Hesitant to strain their relationship with Great Britain and unsure of success, the US treated The Troubles as “an internal problem to be worked out” as President Reagan once put it.
Politicians like Tip O’Neill tried to change this policy, and through his friendship with John Hume, managed to increase a focus on the Irish question and establish the International Fund for Ireland, which contributed to job creation and equality. However, it was when President Clinton was elected that there was sufficient political power to reverse the US government policy of non-interventionism.
This policy change however required risks. In 1994, President Clinton granted a US travel visa to Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin. He believed that Adams was serious about making peace and that, if given greater legitimacy, he could help press the IRA to give up violence. The strategy worked. The visa increased Adams’ standing and enabled him to be more involved in the political process. In the words of the Irish Taoiseach, John Bruton, President Clinton’s decision to engage Sinn Féin “…gave them the confidence to end their campaign”. The British were furious at first when the visa was granted, but during his US visit, Adams promised to push Sinn Féin to make concrete positive decisions. Afterward the British accelerated their efforts to get political talks going, and the Irish government pressured Sinn Féin to cooperate. Seven months later, the IRA declared a ceasefire.
It took nearly four years for these initial steps to transform into the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. During this time, President Clinton continued to work for peace with all the parties. He appointed Senator George Mitchell as a peace envoy, and in 1995 became the first sitting US President to visit Northern Ireland, where he reaffirmed his support for a lasting peace. Speaking to a huge crowd in Guildhall Square, nearly 20 years ago now, he praised the ongoing efforts for peace, saying “… I see a peaceful city, a safe city, a hopeful city, full of young people that should have a peaceful and prosperous future here where their roots and families are”.
President Clinton’s engagement helped sustain the parties through years of difficult negotiations and a break in the cease-fire. He responded immediately, for example, after the Omagh Bomb in 1998 and travelled to Northern Ireland to calm tensions and meet the victims’ families. On the last day of negotiations, he stayed up all night on the phone to bring all of the parties together. The Good Friday Agreement was announced the next morning. After the peace agreement was signed, President Clinton remained committed to the future of Northern Ireland. In the last weeks of his presidency, he again visited Belfast, and urged everyone to move forward toward peace and prosperity.
The consistent message coming from President Clinton has through the years resonated with the philosophy of John Hume who always linked non-violence with economic growth. It is no wonder then that President Clinton chose to honour John Hume in his latest visit to Northern Ireland. It was also appropriate that President Clinton announced a Chair in Peace based at INCORE at the University of Ulster named after John Hume and Tip O’Neill, whose collective visions for Northern Ireland President Clinton was able to help realise in his Presidency and beyond.
So Northern Ireland has indeed come a long way in the last two decades. Derry as a city in particular feels a world away from the violence of the past. Last year it was the UK City of Culture and all the people of the city shared in its diversity and cultural heritage, and optimism remains high.
But at the same time, there is deep division in Northern Ireland. For example, only 7% of children go to integrated schools and many communities remain divided by so-called “peace walls”. Residential segregation between largely Catholic and Protestant communities is still a reality. The political process has faltered recently, particularly around how to deal with the past. Many victims of both paramilitary and state violence still feel their needs have not been met, especially in relation to truth and justice.
In this context, we need to thank those who forged the peace and pushed for it, but we also need to stay true to their wider vision, and we cannot be complacent. To echo the timely words of President Clinton this week, despite the progress, the people of Northern Ireland and the politicians needs to free themselves “…of the past so you can embrace it and be proud rather than be imprisoned by it". In short we need to now “finish the job”.
Photo: President Clinton visiting Derry for the fifth time and walking with John and Pat Hume across the Peace Bridge for the first time. March 5, 2014.