Most powerful man on the planet weeps as he visits Omagh

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The Independent Online
A GREAT CHEER rose up from the group of white-frocked nurses at the front of the crowd as the silver-haired President marched towards them. Bill Clinton peeled off from his companions - Prime Minister Tony Blair, his wife Cherie, and the First Lady Hillary Clinton, who was resplendent in mirrored sunglasses.

It was a marvellous day for a world leader's visit, the first day of uninterrupted sunshine all summer. The bare hills overlooking the town, so mournful in the rain, glowed golden.

President Clinton pumped hands, pausing to listen to the murmers of "welcome' and "thank you for coming'.

"He had tears in his eyes," said Brenda O'Leary, one of the nurses. "I know he's a politician, but they were genuine."

The tallest figure on the High Street, President Clinton was the slowest to work his way along the people gathered along the road where the Real IRA had tried to bomb the heart out of this town three and a half weeks ago.

He paused lengthily, stopping to talk to children and to smile and hold the hands of those who had come to see him. "He spent a lot of time with the kids who had been waiting for four hours," said Mary McAnerney, another nurse. "Even though I know a lot of these things are political, his coming here still helps."

Choreographed as this was, political as it may have been, it would be hard to say that, as he chatted to the crowd, the President's concern was entirely contrived. Few human beings, politicians or not, could fail to be moved by the sight of 3,000 people lined on a road where such a bloody outrage took place so recently, their eyes open wide, their hands held out almost as if for some sort of salvation.

"Look, he's taken the time and the thought to see us here," said Kelvin O'Rourke, who works in a shop upon the stricken High Street. "Who cares why he's doing it?"

On Market Street where the bomb went off, the President laid a wreath at the site; he was late for this appointment because he had spent longer than planned at the local leisure centre where, away from the eyes of the media, the President, Prime Minister and First Ladies had met the injured and relatives of the dead.

Those who had been in the leisure centre with the Clintons and the Blairs said the leaders had been "very moved" by the conversations they had had with the injured.

On the High Street, wreaths of flowers and teddy bears sit in front of the shops where the people, several of them teenagers, who had been killed by the bomb, had worked.

If this is a community in deepest shock, then it seemed that the visit was a sort of catharsis, a symbol that, with the eyes of the world upon them for a positive reason, they could begin to climb out of the abyss of sadness imposed by those who had chosen to destroy them.

The minutiae of President Clinton's current political crises, though not forgotten, were temporarily irrelevant: here was the most powerful man on earth, visiting their town - and seeming, actually, to care.

Tellingly, the Clintons walked several yards apart; the last time they were in Northern Ireland three years ago, they were hand in hand.

The President's visit to Omagh had been widely anticipated with a healthy scepticism. In a security operation unparalleled even in Northern Ireland, the whole town was effectively cordoned off twice, by the RUC and the American Secret Service. Sharp suited Secret Service men with shades on their eyes and mikes in their ears, X-rayed everybody who lined the walkabout route.

Leo Turbett, a 71-year-old retired barman, shopping at Iceland, one of the only shops open in Omagh yesterday, muttered: "This is all for the Irish in America." Eerily, he was echoing the President's speech, being made at around the same time in Belfast, where he thanked the Irish-Americans for their "profound commitment to the peace process".

Just above Market Street a young woman was pushing a pram purposefully along the pavement. She looked away with steely eyes when asked her views about President Clinton's visit: summing up the thoughts of many of her townsfolk, she said that being the centre of world attention would inevitably galvanise the desire for peace. "What's funny though," said Bronagh McCusker, "is that we all said there should be no retaliation when the bomb went off, and politicians said it too. So what does Clinton do when the US embassy is attacked? He retaliates by bombing civilians."

More vital for peace than the consensus of the many sad and gay faces (to paraphrase Yeats) lining the streets of Omagh is the acquiescence of the few who believe sending shards of glass flying into the hearts of schoolchildren will somehow help their own lives.

The battle against peace, as President Clinton referred to it in his speech yesterday, may be a long one. But if the sight of a man who can cause the world to change at the touch of a button strolling down Market Street influences the thoughts of just one desperate waiverer on the verge of dallying with the Real IRA, Bill Clinton's moving visit may not have been in vain.

After the leaders and their entourages left, and eerie emptiness descended on the town. Omagh's 90 minutes of fame were over: the statesmen, the White House Press Corps, and the Secret Service men straight out of a Hollywood movie had vanished.

President Clinton moves on to new venues: Dublin today, and a day on the west coast of Ireland tomorrow, before returning home to the US and the noisy remonstrations of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and his collaborators.

For President Clinton Northern Ireland was as successful as it could be under the sombre circumstances of so much grief in the small town of Omagh.