US teaches Belfast lesson in security lessons in of security

Clinton visit: Presidential entourage preceded by large teams of planners
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Ireland Correspondent

Although the authorities in Belfast are accustomed to mounting huge security operations, even old hands say they have seen nothing to match the preparations for President Bill Clinton's swing through the city.

With the President due to stay overnight in Belfast at the end of the month, large teams of advance organisers have been pouring in for many weeks and more are on the way.

The scale of the activity was such that it was at first thought the Belfast trip was something out of the ordinary, but it has now dawned that presidential visits are always preceded by what might be thought a surfeit of planning and organisation.

There is, however, keen Irish and American political interest in the occasion, since its purpose is to underline the identification of the President with the Irish peace process. He regards his involvement in Ireland as one of his foreign policy successes, and mentions it often in speeches on other subjects.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, has said he hopes the visit will inject some momentum into a process which has for many months been deadlocked on the issue of arms decommissioning.

Sinn Fein is heartened by the fact that the Clinton administration has not endorsed the British demand for republicans to give up some arms before all-party talks are convened. Stopping short of this, Washington's line has instead been that all sides should talk seriously about decommissioning.

When the Clinton visit was announced some months ago, Washington's assumption was that talks would probably be under way by now. Since there is no chance of this happening by the end of the month, American sights have been lowered. Now it seems the most President Clinton can hope for is to visit a city which is still at peace.

Detailed preparations for the visit began a month ago with the arrival of a large "site survey team" which chartered a coach and drove all over Northern Ireland inspecting places for the president to visit. Accompanied by British government officials the group, which included specialists in communications, security and media facilities and transportation, looked at 30 sites in three days.

Just over a week ago these were followed by a "pre-advance team" which re-examined some sites and looked at other possibilities. Two weeks from now the actual "advance team" is expected, and only then will arrangements be finalised.

By that stage dozens of possibilities will have been eliminated and a firm itinerary settled for the one-and-a-half-day visit: the US secret service officers have a saying that on the day "everything will collapse into place".

The presidential entourage will be huge, consisting of hundreds of people: his motorcade will contain 30 vehicles. Hotel accommodation in Belfast is already heavily booked, with up to 500 members of the US press corps expected to follow President Clinton. After Belfast the president is due to travel to Dublin.

During his stay he is expected to meet local political leaders, including Mr Adams.

One possibility is that he will host a "revolving reception" so that opposing political leaders need not come into contact with each other. It is also highly likely that he will visit Londonderry to meet the SDLP leader, John Hume.