Clinton's crucial phone calls

n Deal is a triumph of life over death, says US president n Die- hard nationalists and unionists still to
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The Independent Online
BARRING a catastrophic relapse into violence, President Clinton is expected to visit Ireland next month to give his support to the "Yes" vote in next month's planned peace referendum, government officials and diplomats in Washington said yesterday.

That was the offer he made to the leading Irish players in the negotiations when they all held talks with him in Washington last month during the St Patrick's Day celebrations.

His condition was that they should agree a deal by the Easter deadline. Now that they have, it would be a surprise if he let slip the opportunity to give a possibly decisive final push to "a major foreign policy triumph" - as Washington commentators described it yesterday - in which he has invested so much of his energy and prestige during the past four years.

In a radio address broadcast nationally yesterday, Mr Clinton signalled America's commitment to the Irish cause, promising "the continuing aid, support, encouragement and prayers of the United States to the effort to build a lasting peace and an enduring prosperity in Ireland and Northern Ireland".

While warning that "the pain and hatred of so many years cannot and will not be washed away in one weekend", Mr Clinton said, "all across Ireland, Catholics and Protestants will, in their own way, proclaim their faith in the triumph of life over death".

The triumph is unlikely to have come off had Mr Clinton not stuck with his peacemaking mission to the bitter end.

In the final hours of the Stormont talks, sometimes late into the night Washington time, he spoke four times with Tony Blair, twice with Bertie Ahern, twice with Mr Adams, once with David Trimble and twice with John Hume. He was also in constant telephone contact with George Mitchell, the American chairman of the talks.

The president's decisive contribution, according to US government sources, was to persuade Mr Adams to keep faith with the peace process after he began to suspect that Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists were obtaining too many concessions on the critical matter of the North-South Council.

At 12.50am Washington time on Friday, 5.50am Belfast time, Mr Clinton spoke to Mr Adams for about 25 minutes. At 1.50am he spoke to Mr Hume, who shared some of Mr Adams' misgivings. Promising both of them his support if they took the risks necessary for peace, the president urged them to rise above the details.

At 3.15am Mr Clinton spoke to Mr Mitchell for half an hour. At that point Mr Adams was still the one who needed encouragement, so, at 5am, Mr Clinton reached the Sinn Fein leader on the phone again.

Right at the death, just when it seemed that a compromise on the North- South bodies had cleared the way for a deal, it was Mr Trimble who balked, raising doubts about the question of the IRA arms decommissioning.

So at 11am Washington time Mr Clinton got on the phone to Mr Trimble, pressing him to accept Mr Blair's last-minute assurances that this was an issue on which the British Government would not back down.