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President Clinton’s Remarks at the Agreement 25 Conference

Leadership & Public Service | 15 Minute Read


On April 19, President Clinton delivered a keynote address at Queens University Belfast as part of the Agreement 25 conference. A full transcript of his remarks is available below.

President Clinton: 

Thank you very much. I have been here so long that I am reliably informed that I will owe taxes if I’m not gone in 48 hours. Mr. Prime Minister, Taoiseach, I got to hear President von der Leyen, all distinguished guests, and thank you Bertie Ahern for sitting through one more talk of mine. 

And to all of you, I have loved this. I’ve watched a lot of your panels at these last two-day meetings on livestream and then I’ve had unique access to your chancellor to get a daily report on what happened. I thank her, and Vice-Chancellor Greer and all the people here at Queens for making us all so welcome. 

In many ways, the students I’ve seen here and the faculty are a metaphor for the future we hope to see in Northern Ireland with people of all backgrounds from all around the world living and working together. I must say I heard the panel in which the representative from the Alliance Party got off I thought the best one-liner I’d heard about the purpose of government, “They do after all hire us to do jobs.” So I would ask you to indulge my attempt to downgrade the rhetoric and upgrade the reason. 

I was in Derry yesterday with Mark Durkan and others and I’m emotionally spent. But to me, all of this comes down to a pretty simple question, what is the meaning of this peace agreement lasting for 25 years, and what should happen in the next 25 years? I can tell you it’s a different place than it was in 1995 when I first came here, but then it was a big deal that Gerry Adams and I shook hands on the street. I mean, you would’ve thought the pavement was about to crack open. Now people would say, “What’s the matter with those two snobs, they’re not even shaking hands on the street.” That’s a good thing. But it’s lasted 25 years, most peace agreements fall apart in less than a decade. That’s worth remembering. 

So first, why did it last? It lasted, I think, because the people demanded it. It lasted because the process was really good and Senator Mitchell did a brilliant job of leading it and negotiating it. And the parties knew what they really needed, which was knowing that they all would have a voice in the future of Northern Ireland. And it mandated cooperation. It forced it in a way that few agreements do. There would be renouncing violence, shared decision making, shared economic benefits. Prime Minister Ahern gave up the Irish constitutional claim to the counties of the North and in return the agreement said that this area would have special relationships with the Irish Republic while maintaining its presence in the United Kingdom. And it worked, except when it didn’t, when the government went down. But that was a perfectly predictable result because whenever you make a big deal like this and people have to compromise and everybody wants to compromise, then they wake up the next day and a certain number of people who almost always vote in elections have buyer’s remorse and they say, “Oh my God, what did I just agree to?” So that helps people who are perceived to be stronger and will bargain harder. Then it makes the governments more vulnerable. So we went through periods that the government’s going down and up and down and up. 

But now, the government’s had it down a long time and a lot of efforts have been made to get it back up. And this Windsor agreement, it seems to me anyway as an outsider who cares very much, is about the best deal you could get to split the baby – to allow the benefits of access to the European markets and the necessity of access to the UK market to be reconciled in a way that will permit the best of both worlds. Something that as far as I can tell, nobody else with this kind of access to the EU has in their domestic market. I don’t think there’s anything quite like this. So do I hope it will be enough or that it can be tweaked a little bit? I certainly do, because no matter how good any deal is, how much endurance there is, what really matters is how long it has a hold of people’s imagination and trust and whether the people who are in positions of power and influence will always do what’s best for the people. 

Look, this was a hard deal, and there yesterday we honored the memory and the families of the John and Pat Hume and David Trimble. I wish they’d lived to this day. Lord knows they took enough licks, they earned the right to be here, but the good Lord had other plans. They knew, both of them knew that they would suffer politically for their success, for the reason I said, that buyers’ remorse would set in, people would want the toughest deal makers they could get then, and they did it anyway. In Seamus Heaney’s memorable words, “They walked on air against their better judgment.” And if they were here today, both of them would say, “I’m glad we did that, some things are more important than the next election.” 

We had a popular opinion demanding peace, we had a good peace process with vigorous able comprehensive combative leaders and a great manager in George Mitchell. And we had organized support from important areas. There’s a lot that’s been made about the importance of women’s groups here. And some of you, including your chancellor, have been on this for a long time, going back to the time of the peace process. But again, there’s data that supports that. We know that peace accords are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women participate in the process. And now I expect Gerry Adams to get some sort of international awards for women’s rights as the Sinn Fein has virtually purged itself of male leadership. We’re laughing about this, but it’s important. 

The young people are important too. They were always in the right place here, most of them. The kids that introduced me at Mackie’s Plant way back in 1995. Down to the students that I meet in 2023, not only on campus, just walking the streets, just talking to people. 

And that’s the last point I want to make. One of the real problems with people like me who used to be something is that we love talking about what we did when we were whatever it was we were as if, “God, we were inspired and we were tough and we were brave and we were brilliant and we hardly ever made a mistake. And if only to people today we’re half as good as we were then, everything would be lovely.” That’s the biggest load bull I’ve ever heard in my life. Those of us who were there then should thank God every day that we were lucky enough to be where we were to have an opportunity when time and circumstances permitted to play a small role in a big lift in the human condition. 

But what that means is that all of us should endeavor, and I have tried for more than 22 years now since I left the White House to do this, I have tried in ways large and small, I never tell war stories when I give public speeches unless I am specifically asked to talk about something that happened then as if it were relevant today, otherwise I don’t do it. I try to live in the present and for the future and so should we all. And that’s why I’ve really enjoyed, as much as anything else in this conference, is listening to all of you who have positions now talking about what we should do. 

But I do think the people that I was privileged to work with, Bertie and Tony and their predecessors. I still remember Albert Reynolds when I asked him, I called him, I said, “Think I ought to give Adams a visa?” He said, “I do.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Blah, blah, blah,” he gave me the reasons. And I said, “I’ll probably get the hell kicked out of me.” He said, “You will, but you should do it.” I was lucky that I had people to talk to from the beginning who talked straight and shot straight. 

What is the future about? The future is about now that I think the biggest roadblock that Brexit posed for Northern Ireland’s political and economic future has been dramatically mitigated is to figure out what the heck else is practically at issue here, not rhetorically, not ideologically, practically at issue? What else needs to change to protect the day-to-day legitimate pursuits of making a living and deal with it. But this whole deal was never supposed to be an engine of obstruction. The agreement was never supposed to be used to make sure there could be no self-government, to make sure people should give up on it. And we know what the votes were in the last election, we can add them up, their allocation of seats in the parliamentary body and it’s time to get the show on the road. 

And I think… I want to say one other thing that is purely selfish. I mean, for me as a citizen, as a father, as a grandfather, I am really worried about how politics has drifted away from serious issues that affect people’s daily lives into identity issues which are subject to infinite twisting. And that the main purpose of them is to convince people that some of us are more human than others, some of us are more worthy than others, and that our differences matter more than our common humanity. 

And it’s worked out better than I ever thought it could. I’ll give it to the people on the other side, they prove that if you just keep telling people long enough that the infidels are at the gate and we’re about to go to hell in a hand basket and all this stuff that goes on in the United States and lots of other places in the world, it’s worked better than I thought it would. But there is a half-life to it and people do get sick of it. And the basic decent humanity you see, and almost everybody, person to person, eventually reasserts itself. 

The most lyrical description of it I’ve seen in modern literature is the end of Isabel Wilkerson’s great book Caste where she’s a widow and one of her two children has just died, she’s been through hell. And her husband when he was ill and knew he wasn’t going to live long, had meticulously written out instructions for practical things. Who do you call if the plumbing fails? So the water was dripping in her basement and she looked at her husband’s notes and she called the person. And the guy shows up, and for those of you don’t know her, she’s a distinguished Black academic at Princeton who’s written a lot of wonderful books, and Caste compares the caste system in India with the race situation in America, but it’s really about modern life. 

So anyway, the end of this very serious book is about her trying to get the water leak fixed in her basement. And the guy that shows up to fix a leak has got a MAGA cap on, one of the Trump Make America Great Again hats. And he looks at her, this very refined, elegant Black woman and says, “Where’s the lady of the house?” And she says, “That would be me.” She explains what happened. He goes down, there’s water everywhere. He says, “Well we got to move these boxes.” And at first he makes no attempt to help her. And then he says, “I think this is not a water leak, I think something happened to your air conditioning and we can’t fix that.” 

And it’s tending toward a disaster. And then, the guys looking at all these boxes in the basement, a lot of you have boxes in the basement, don’t you, that’s… And he sees these old pictures, some of them very old. He said, “Are these your family photos?” And she said, “Yes.” He said, “You got to do something about these. These are beautiful pictures and they could get ruined.” And he starts helping her move everything away from the leak. And then he says, “I want to give you somebody you can call about this air conditioning thing. The guy’s very honest and won’t cheat you, he’ll give you good prices.” And then the next morning he comes back to her house to make sure that she got the guy and he’s going to fix it. And all of the sudden he’s dealing with this woman who had once symbolized something he thought he had to rail against, as if she were a real live human being. 

In other words, he’s doing what all of you did 25 years ago when you started this, living as a real live human being. When I was a little boy, my mother told me one day, and I came home furious, and some thug had done something at school I thought was terrible. She said, “Billy, he tried to make you mad, didn’t he?” I said, “He did.” And she said, “He did make you mad, didn’t he?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Anybody whose only goal is to make you mad is not your friend.” She said, “You can never stop thinking. You can never stop feeling.” 

So look, I know what I would do, I think if I had some job in the British government or the Irish government or the Northern Ireland political system tomorrow, but that’s not nearly as important as you doing it. Guys like me need to get out of town. I mean, they’re already doing what they so often do, trying to spew resentment against us for showing up in the first place, which I think is funny because I think showing up in the first place helped you get to where we are now. 

Do you still have problems? Sure. We need more economic growth, we need less inequality. You got some health issues you need to resolve, and you got to have a functioning government to do all that and there are these other things out there. But I think that’s what the British government wants, I think it’s what the Irish government wants, and I know it’s what the people outside want. 

And so, I thank you for giving me an unforgettable week and I thank you for caring about all this. And I ask you not to be discouraged. This is human affairs. There are few permanent victories and defeats and human affairs. All these old, ugly problems are always rearing their heads and you just have to suck it up and beat it back and deal with it. You’ll be fine if you remember what got you here. You are no longer walking on air against your better judgment. If Seamus Heaney were still alive and he were here, he would say, “We walked on air against our better judgment, now you have a hard floor to walk on, for God’s sakes, get up and walk.” This whole thing has been one of the great blessings of my life and I can’t wait to see what you do with it. God bless you. Thank you.