Clinton to visit Ulster

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The Independent Online
US PRESIDENT Bill Clinton is to visit Ulster as well as the Republic of Ireland and London later this year, it was confirmed yesterday.

It will be a visit rich in symbolism, demonstrating the fact that the Northern Ireland question has been internationalised and is to maintain a high priority on the Clinton administration's agenda.

President Clinton's trip will be the first by a US president to Ireland since Ronald Reagan visited Ballyporeen, the County Tipperary village his ancestors left in the last century, in 1984. But Mr Reagan did not go north of the border.

It is not yet clear if President Clinton will visit Belfast itself.

The trip may well cause a stir by including the first public handshake between President Clinton and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. The two shook hands in Washington on St Patrick's Day last March, but that encounter took place in private.

At the moment the visit is scheduled to last for three or four days, beginning at the end of November, though the dates are to be formally confirmed. Last month the White House confirmed that possible dates were under discussion with London and Dublin.

The visit will be welcomed by all shades of Irish nationalism, ranging from the Irish government to Sinn Fein, since all are anxious to recruit American influence to their cause.

Unionist sources will be in two minds about the visit, being hopeful of increasing American investment in Northern Ireland but leery of providing Sinn Fein with further propaganda victories.

Over the last 18 months President Clinton has seriously displeased the British government on a number of occasions - by granting Mr Adams a visa to visit the States, for example, and allowing him to fund-raise there. Some of his decisions were seen as damaging to Anglo-American relations.

But in an important speech to an investment conference in Washington last month President Clinton laid heavy emphasis on the arms de-commissioning issue, saying a start had to be made. This was most welcome to the British government, and has increased the pressure on Sinn Fein to bring about movement on the part of the IRA.

Meanwhile, writes Peter Victor, John Major and the Irish prime minister John Bruton were directly at odds yesterday over the case of Private Lee Clegg, the paratrooper jailed for life for the Belfast shooting of a girl in a joyrider's car.

Mr Bruton warned that a release for Clegg without early freedom for loyalists and republicans as well could harm the peace process. He said in Paris that Clegg's release could create a sense of one law for the security forces and one for everyone else.

But Mr Major and the Northern Ireland Office insisted all cases are decided on their own merits and that of Pte Clegg would not be linked to any other prisoners.

Mr Major robustly defended the handling of Clegg's case, effectively telling Mr Bruton not to interfere: "There is a proper procedure that is now under consideration as far as Pte Clegg is concerned and that procedure must go through its normal procedures.

"There's nothing more that can be done other than that. It's in the course of examination at the moment. In due course, a recommendation will go to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and he will then make a decision, but that is not something anyone else can interfere with."

The NIO said: "Decisions on changes to remission rates for prisoners in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the UK are a matter solely for the British government. There is no question of any linkage between action on the Clegg case and any other individual case."

Sir Nicholas Bonsor, chairman of the Commons defence select committee, criticised Mr Bruton's interjection, saying: "It's very tactless to try and intervene in each other's judicial affairs. It would be disgraceful if Private Lee Clegg were to become a political pawn and the Prime Minister was right to stress that our judicial process will be in no way affected by any political considerations."

Clegg, 26, is in Wakefield Prison awaiting a recommendation by the Life Sentence Review Board which considered his case.