A formula for reviving Irish spirits

Bill Clinton's visit was a great excuse for a great party. And the good times will linger, says David McKittrick
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Belfast, as somebody once remarked, is not at all a typical Irish city: it has more in common with the Scottish or northern English cities that sprang up with the industrial revolution, and shares many of their characteristics.

In one of its aspects it is tough, dour, grumpy, with a take-it-or-leave- it attitude, a city of no airs and graces - personified, in fact, by Van Morrison, who this week served as the warm-up act for Bill Clinton at its city hall.

That facet has been to the fore ever since the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, which were greeted with a mixture of relief and caution. It took the presidential visit to liberate another of the city's aspects, at last allowing it to show its warm, welcoming, even joyous face.

In doing so, the visit not only provided the occasion for a release of goodwill but also consolidated and cemented the peace process. It was more than just a great party: it may turn out to be a truly historic turning point, for in a single day almost all of the lingering doubts about the peace were swept away.

Many trials and obstacles will have to be surmounted in the months and years ahead, but this week's events have immeasurably strengthened the process. The preceding weeks had produced a series of ever-gloomier assessments from republicans, and latterly from security sources. Both elements warned that the process was becoming unstable as the arms decommissioning impasse dragged on. Tuesday night's Anglo-Irish summit, since over-shadowed by the Clinton visit, did much to relieve the pressures. Even in the absence of agreement between Dublin and London, its carefully balanced formula set up an international body on decommissioning and moved towards talks. It was, in effect, an offer that, politically, Sinn Fein and the IRA could not refuse and, for the moment at least, it dispelled most of the dangerous tensions.

While the ingenious intricacies of the summit communique have supplied a technical framework for the next few months, the Clinton visit delivered an extraordinary injection of momentum, enthusiasm, fresh heart and new spirit. His message that the violence was over for good was radiated back to him from the thousands who stood in the cold to hear him and cheer him.

On 31 August, on the first anniversary of the IRA cessation of violence, the streets in front of the city hall were empty: no one felt able to celebrate. On Thursday night, with Clinton as the catalyst, tens of thousands clapped, cheered, waved their US flags and finally allowed their feelings to come out into the open.

The fact that the crowd was made up of both Catholics and Protestants is a tribute to Clinton's political skills. Throughout 1994, his name was mud with Unionists as, in the face of stiff British opposition, he granted Gerry Adams visas to visit the States and allowed him to fund- raise there (a boon that has netted Sinn Fein hundreds of thousands of dollars and has probably made it Ireland's richest political party).

Clinton's is the first US administration to make a serious study of the politics of Northern Ireland, and certainly the first to intervene in them. No American president had ever visited Northern Ireland before this week, JFK deciding in 1963 not to venture north of the border.

This was largely because American administrations were perceived as pro- Irish nationalists. Indeed, many saw Clinton in this light in 1994. Since then, however, his position has evolved considerably: he has made particular efforts to mend fences with London while, as he demonstrated in Dublin yesterday, remaining on good terms with the Irish government.

His warmest praise was reserved for SDLP leader John Hume, who clearly has a major input into American decision-making. But Clinton has also made a special effort to build bridges to Unionists, offering special access to Unionist leader David Trimble and establishing relations with loyalist paramilitary groups.

Keeping all sides in the conflict reasonably happy is no easy task, but the tumultuous welcomes he received in Belfast and Londonderry showed he has succeeded in doing so. (His coolest reception, from the Rev Ian Paisley, is regarded as pretty much par for the Paisley course.)

Clinton's popularity was not earned by retreating into anodyne generalisations about peace. The most important messages in his speeches this week were that the violence must be over for good and that formerly violent prodigals should be welcomed into politics. He declared in Belfast: "You must be willing to say that those who renounce violence are entitled to be part of the democratic process."

In emphasising this last week he voiced no criticism of the British government but made it clear that his approach is the speedy construction of an inclusive settlement. In doing so he places more emphasis on the need for dialogue than London has displayed.

In his approach Clinton is of course hopeful of netting Irish-American votes, but his analysis goes much deeper than that. He, like Dublin, believes that the best way to deal with republicans is to draw them ever-deeper into the political net. He believes his decision to allow Adams into the States was vindicated in that it helped facilitate the IRA ceasefire.

The appointment of his close friend and ally George Mitchell as head of the decommissioning body is an indication that the US will remain a major player in the peace process. Many Unionists and many in Britain may have instinctive reservations about continuing US involvement, but the fact is that it is here to stay. This week all the signs were, from the people on the streets of Belfast, that they wholeheartedly approve of the fact that their peace process has become an international issue.

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