Hillary speech avoids state of union

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SHE FLEW into Belfast, one of the most powerful women in the world, ready to speak out for women's rights and their key role in the Irish peace process. It didn't matter - all everyone wanted to know was whether she was still furious with her philandering husband.

Yesterday the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was addressing the Vital Voices - Women in Democracy conference. But thanks to Mr Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern, any words of wisdom Hillary Clinton said were subsumed into feverish speculation about the State of the Union - the Clintons' union that is.

Onlookers wanted to know whether the big chill between Hillary and her husband was ongoing or whether the trip to Moscow had gone some way to thawing the cold war as she gave her first public speech since her husband's confession. The speculation was even more intense because Hillary was said to have been working on this speech in the White House when her husband was two floors below testifying to Kenneth Starr about his "inappropriate relationship" with the intern.

When things look bad, Mrs Clinton has always slapped on the warpaint, put on her best clothes and fought back with her "don't-dare-feel-sorry- for-me" attitude.

Still, for a feminist the fact that her appearance (navy blue suit), her gestures (minimal), and even her lipstick (very discreet) would be considered more important than the message she was trying to get across about women's role in the peace process must have been frustrating.

What the First Lady actually said in her speech was to reiterate the US's firm stance on terrorism and its support for the peace process, pay tribute to the "courage and strength of generations of women" who had contributed to change in the political climate (she particularly praised Mo Mowlam's role, including her talents as a dancer). But no one was listening. Rather everyone wanted to know if she winced as she said the words "my husband" (she did not refer to him by any other name).

Certainly the 500 British and 75 American women at the Waterfront Hall gave her an enthusiastic welcome. But despite her stirring words, live TV coverage of her speech was abruptly pulled after 10 minutes. After all, she hadn't said anything about Monica.