Clinton urges Ireland not to let the chance of peace slip away

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PEOPLE of the battered town of Omagh yesterday put aside their grief for a day, turning out in their thousands to extend a warm welcome to Bill Clinton.

The beleaguered American President's visit to the Co Tyrone town, with Hillary Clinton and Tony and Cherie Blair, was the focal point of a one- day visit that emphasised continuing US support for the peace process.

The two couples spent a harrowing hour in an Omagh gymnasium, meeting relatives of some of the 28 people killed by a bomb planted by the so- called Real IRA last month. They also met many of the injured, including a young girl who had both eyes covered with bandages and a boy with bandaged hands. Some had been released from hospital for the day.

The Clintons and the Blairs were said to have been deeply moved by the experience. Tony Blair's spokesman said he had found the courage and determination of the people inspirational, adding: "Just as on the Prime Minister's previous visit to Omagh, many of the people told him to keep going with the peace process."

This sentiment summed up the message delivered by Mr Clinton in a number of speeches during the day. He said of the chance of peace: "Do not let it slip away. It will not come again in our lifetimes. Give your leaders the support they need to make the hard, but necessary decisions.

"There will be hard roads ahead. The terror in Omagh was not the last bomb of the Troubles. It was the opening shot of a vicious attack on the peace. The question is not whether there will be more bombs and more attempts to undo with violence the verdict of the ballot box. There well may be."

Speaking from the same platform, the Prime Minister called on local political leaders to take risks "even when close supporters criticise" and to show courage and imagination. This was viewed as directed towards the Ulster Unionists' leader, David Trimble, some of whose colleagues are expressing opposition to moves towards a meeting with Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams.

This key political set-piece of the day, at Belfast's recently built Waterfront Hall, brought a moment that might be characterised either as a confrontation or the beginnings of engagement. In what was seen as a tough speech, Mr Trimble declared: "I say to those who are crossing the bridge from terror to democracy. Every move you make towards peace, I welcome. If you take the road of peace and do so in genuine good faith, you will find me a willing leader in that journey."

He also warned, however, that if the war was really over there could be no justification for holding on to illegal weapons, saying he could not reconcile seeking positions in government with a failure to dismantle terrorist organisations.

As he delivered these strictures the Ulster Unionist leader repeatedly glanced in the direction of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, who were seated in the front row of the audience. The occasion was thus one of visual, if not yet verbal engagement.

Earlier, Mr Clinton met members of the Belfast Assembly, which he commended as a key part of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. He was afterwards to be seen in less formal mood, taking tea with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, and Mr Trimble.

In Omagh, Hillary Clinton laid flowers at a plaque that has been temporarily placed on a stone plinth close to the spot where the bomb exploded. The Clintons and Blairs walked through Market Street, spending longer than had been expected meeting local people.