The welcomes for President Bill Clinton in Belfast and Londonderry yesterday turned into the nearest thing Northern Ireland has seen to a celebration of the peace process.
The President was given near-rapturous receptions in Belfast, and especially in Londonderry, with tens of thousands braving cold winds to see him and Hillary Clinton. The visit, the first ever by a US president to Northern Ireland, surpassed all expectations, with an outpouring of goodwill which must have made Mr Clinton wish the crowds had the vote in America.
In Londonderry, he was faced with a sea of US flags and thousands of beaming people who cheered and applauded as he quoted Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel. Pride of place was given to SDLP leader John Hume, who rarely strayed from the President's side.
A man in the crowd craned his neck for a better view: it was Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Londonderry was clearly intended as a tribute to Mr Hume, but in Belfast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had his moment, getting to shake the Clinton hand for the first time in public.
Later the president spent 25 minutes talking privately with Ian Paisley, who said: "We will not put up barriers to a real peace, but it can't be a real peace when people have murder weapons in their hands."
In remarkable scenes, the President was mobbed on the Falls Road, but was warmly received too on the Protestant Shankill, where shopkeepers who got to shake his hand wandered round in a semi-dazed condition, faces shining from their brush with such celebrity.
The President had a world-class warm-up act in Van Morrison, one of Belfast's most famous sons, before he switched on Belfast's Christmas lights. This was designed to be the centrepiece but, in fact, the real highlight came earlier in the day at Mackies' engineering works when two children, one Catholic and one Protestant, were brought forward to read letters they had sent to him.
A 10-year-old Protestant boy, David Sterrett, read out: "I think the peace is great because there is no shooting or bombing. It means not worrying about getting shot." But the show was stolen by a nine-year-old Catholic girl, Catherine Hamill, whose father was shot dead by loyalists in 1987. Undeterred by a sea of VIPs and a battery of television cameras broadcasting her words to millions, she said: "My first daddy died in the troubles. It was the saddest day of my life. I still think of him. Now it is nice and peaceful. I like having peace and quiet for a change, instead of people shooting and killing. My Christmas wish is that peace and love will last in Ireland for ever."
The Clinton visit can easily be dismissed by cynics but for thousands it was a catalyst which brought them out in the cold to acclaim the peace process.
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