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The Tonic Of Peace

A besieged Bill Clinton is cheered in Ireland for America's role in helping to end the Troubles

By Barry Hillenbrand

Northern Ireland, where the painstaking peace process has been rocked by horrible killings in the past few months, hardly seems a promising destination for a politician searching for a bit of uplift and optimism. But last week after two fruitless days in Moscow, President Bill Clinton flew into Belfast to a warm welcome from cheering crowds and to celebrate what, despite bombings and burnings, still looks like a major foreign policy triumph for his Administration. "The people of Northern Ireland," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair in welcoming Clinton, "owe you a deep debt of gratitude. No President of the United States has done more for peace in Northern Ireland than you." No one would argue with Blair.

Even as the President stepped off the plane, there was another sign of progress. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger dashed up to Clinton and handed him a newspaper that carried a banner headline announcing that David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the First Minister of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, had agreed to hold a one-on-one meeting this week with Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. "This is the headline we wanted to see," Berger told a beaming Clinton.

Indeed it was. Trimble, throughout the long months of the peace negotiations, had stubbornly refused ever to speak directly to Adams because of his affiliation with the violent I.R.A. In the days preceding the President's arrival, Adams, after lobbying from Clinton, made a series of crucial statements which made the meeting possible. Adams said the violence "must be for all of us now a thing of the past, over, done with and gone." This fulfilled a Unionist demand that the I.R.A., through Adams, replace their cease-fire with a permanent denunciation of violence.

The following day Adams said that Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator and a hard man, with an impeccable reputation with the top command of the I.R.A., would become the liaison between the I.R.A. and the international commission that is to arrange the disarming of Northern Ireland's paramilitary forces in accordance with terms of the Good Friday agreement. "In a few months' time," said Adams, "when the Assembly is up and running, people will say none of this would have been possible without the President's trip."

But Clinton was not always assured that his visit would be a success. On Aug. 15 a violent republican splinter group calling itself the Real I.R.A. set off a powerful bomb in Omagh, a rural market town in the north. Twenty-eight people were killed and 220 injured in the single worst attack in the 30 years of fighting between Protestants and Catholics. The Real I.R.A. hoped the outrage caused by the bomb would be so great that the peace process would grind to a halt. Instead, the carnage inflicted by the bomb was so indiscriminate and terrible--Catholics and Protestants, women and children, old people and teenagers were among the dead--that all parties to the conflict rushed to isolate and crush the terrorist elements.

Adams, for the first time, "unequivocally condemned" a republican bombing. With unprecedented haste and over the objections of civil rights advocates, the governments in both Dublin and London required only two days to pass new anti-terrorist legislation, which will make it easier to send terrorists to prison. The leaders of the Real I.R.A. fled their homes in the Republic, and the organization seems to be on the run.

The hope that some good can be salvaged from an evil act is a painful and recurring theme in Northern Ireland. Clinton touched on it when, out of the sight of cameras, he--along with the First Lady, Blair and his wife Cherie--visited the injured survivors of the blast in Omagh and then unveiled a plaque to the dead that said simply, "May their memories serve to foster peace and reconciliation."

Clinton's sober and, at times, tearful mood began to lift and approach the ebullient mode when he began shaking hands along a rope line in Omagh. The crowds, laughing and smiling, chanted, "We want Bill! We want Bill!" By the time he spoke in the ancient cathedral town of Armagh, the President was nearly back to his familiar, self-confident form. "Never underestimate the impact you can have on the world," Clinton said. "Thank you for the springtime of hope you have given the world. Thank you for reminding us of one of life's most important lessons--that it is never too late for a new beginning." With American help, Northern Ireland has begun again. No doubt Clinton would like to have that chance.

--With reporting by Jay Branegan with Clinton and Cliff Stammerman/Armagh

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

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