For once, parties can agree – Hillary's a class act
Published 08/12/2012 | 17:00
IT'S still enough to give the head-staggers to anyone who watched from either near or afar as the two communities of the North tore each other apart for so long, with such violence and seemingly little hope of any peaceful resolution.
It really isn't that many years since the notion that the likes of Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, John Hume, David Trimble, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson could sit in the same room, breaking bread rather than crockery, seemed the stuff of hallucination.
But they were all seated at tables in the Titanic museum in Belfast yesterday, among over 400 guests who had gathered to bid farewell to a woman who has played a crucial role in turning this hallucination into reality.
Both sides of the North's political divide are heartily ad idem when it comes to the importance of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the painstaking construction of the peace process.
So they turned out in full force to pay tribute to the US Secretary of State as she fulfilled her last engagement of a four-day trip to Europe – and one of her last engagements before stepping down and reverting to the status of, as she repeatedly insisted, "a private citizen".
But this Ireland Fund lunch was held in the shadow of a dark cloud of tension over the city in recent days following the decision to stop flying the union flag at Belfast City Hall every day.
Nationalists on Belfast City Council had wanted the flag taken down altogether, but in the end they backed a compromise from the Alliance Party that it would fly on 17 designated days.
But the decision sparked death threats to Alliance MP Naomi Long and Sinn Fein councillor Jim McVeigh, as sectarian violence reared its head once again.
At a press conference in Stormont earlier in the day, Ms Clinton condemned the threats to Ms Long, saying: "I know her and I am distressed about her and attacks on Alliance. It's unacceptable."
But at the lunch, the focus was firmly on the guest of honour. It was held in the room containing an exact replica of the sweeping staircase on the Titanic, but disappointingly, Hillary chose to enter by an ordinary door, rather than make a grand entrance akin to that other famous survivor, Kate Winslet's Rose.
However, the North's First Minister, Peter Robinson, happily riffed on a Titanic theme.
"Politicians have been building another ship – a ship of state," he said, adding that Northern Ireland had a clear message "whether it's from the helm, port or starboard – this ship is not going down".
He and Martin McGuinness were unstinting in their praise of Hillary. "There is a small corner in the European continent where there are a people who will be forever grateful to you," said Peter.
"I don't believe there would've been a peace process were it not for Bill and Hillary Clinton," declared Martin.
Hillary looked most glamorous in a black-and-white, three-quarter-length dress-coat and poker-straight hair and was clearly touched by the tributes.
"I feel like I'm at my own wake," she joked. "They both said these incredibly nice things about me, but it means the world to me because I not only consider them colleagues, but friends."
There's little doubt that Bill and Hillary's affection for the North is genuine and the Clintons have previously referred to their post-ceasefire visit to Belfast in 1995 when they switched on the Christmas lights as a highlight of his presidency.
Hillary returned to that visit yesterday, giving a glimpse of just how profound an effect it had on her.
"We stood in front of a vast crowd that stretched so far I could not find the end to it in any direction and it was a moment of such hope," she recalled. "And it has been that image which has kept me going through any challenges."
But in among the honey was a drop of medicine for the North's political leaders – and it was as politician, rather than as a friend, that she issued a warning to them to emerge from the cosy bubble of life in Stormont and go into the communities.
"We have to do more to get out of the ballrooms, out of Stormont, into the communities where people live, where there yet is not that sense of lasting hope and optimism," she told them.
And Hillary wants to help.
"As I leave this current position and become a private citizen again, I want to continue working with you," she announced, "I'm very serious about this offer."
What a class act. They give her lunch. She gives them food for thought.