The theme of hope and the possibility of political progress ran through the day, though there was an emphasis on how many difficulties lie ahead in the peace process.
The event was, however, overshadowed by four separate elements. One was the Monica Lewinsky affair and the possibility of further embarrassments on Bill Clinton's return to Washington; a second was the Omagh bombing; a third was the fear, which he himself voiced, that "Omagh was not the last bomb of the troubles". On top of all these came the Nova Scotia air crash.
But if the visit understandably did not re-capture the euphoria and elation of the first Clinton trip in late 1995, it was by no means a dismal affair. A ceremony to mark a projected new peaceline university in the heart of west Belfast's urban deprivation, for example, concentrated attention on the themes of youth and education.
In Omagh, a suspicion that townspeople were growing tired of visits from VIPs in the wake of the bombing seemed to be dispelled when thousands flocked to the streets to see the president. Most of the rest of the Clinton visit to Belfast was meant to be seen as a strong re-affirmation of US support for the peace process in general and in particular the Good Friday agreement with its centrepiece of the new assembly. He first met assembly members at Stormont, ranging from Sinn Fein to the Democratic Unionists.
Then at Belfast's Waterfront Hall pride of place was given to the assembly's leaders, first minister-designate David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, and his nationalist deputy Seamus Mallon. They shared the stage with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
In a short passage in his main speech the president set out two major targets: "To de-commission weapons of war that are obsolete in Northern Ireland at peace; to move forward with a formation of an executive council."
Intense American pre-visit diplomacy did not succeed in bringing about either actual de-commissioning or the handshake between David Trimble and Gerry Adams which would signal that both would be taking their places in an executive to run Northern Ireland.
But it did help propel the two sides towards each other, with Trimble- Adams meetings now in prospect and this week's republican moves on de- commissioning and on other fronts. The visit also served to show how far politics has already moved.Reuse content