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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Clinton visit: It was very different to 1995, and so it should be

Published 06/03/2014 | 02:30

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Former US President Bill Clinton greets wellwishers after he paid tribute to former SDLP leader John Hume at the Guildhall in Derry. PA
Former US President Bill Clinton greets wellwishers after he paid tribute to former SDLP leader John Hume at the Guildhall in Derry. PA
Pat and John Hume with Bill Clinton on Derry’s Peace Bridge yesterday. Simon Graham/Harrisons
(Left - right) Chairman of the Queen's University of Belfast Foundation Tom Lynch, Head of Ulster Bank Northern Ireland Ellvena Graham, Queen's University Belfast President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Patrick Johnston, former US president Bill Clinton, Director of the Leadership Institute Anne Clydesdale and Registrar and Chief Operating Officer James O'Kane at the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute at Riddel Hall, Belfast. PA
(Left - right) Chairman of the Queen's University of Belfast Foundation Tom Lynch, Head of Ulster Bank Northern Ireland Ellvena Graham, Queen's University Belfast President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Patrick Johnston, former US president Bill Clinton, Director of the Leadership Institute Anne Clydesdale and Registrar and Chief Operating Officer James O'Kane at the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute at Riddel Hall, Belfast. PA

The kids who arrived were all born in the years since the bombs and guns fell silent. Young mothers pushing buggies who were children themselves when the 42nd president of the United States first visited their city in 1995 streamed in, and then there was an older generation for whom the Troubles still seems like only yesterday.

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It was a dull, damp day, with a biting wind skating across the River Foyle and around the nooks of Guildhall Square. But the crowds came regardless.

The visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton to Derry almost 20 years ago had conjured up a bit of magic in a place which has seen more hard rain than stardust fall on its streets. It was a chilly Thursday afternoon in November 1995 when America's First Couple arrived in a cavalcade of black limousines to a tumult of American flags and a rapturous reception from 25,000 people crammed into in the square

It was different yesterday, and so it should be. There were hundreds, not thousands in Guildhall Square. Life, unhindered by unceasing eruptions of violence, goes on for most citizens – most citizens but not all, as demonstrated by the recent failure of Northern leaders to resolve issues such as flags, parades and dealing with the past. But Bill Clinton was willing as ever to give it a go as he travelled to various events in Derry and Belfast yesterday.

And while he was due to have meetings with many of the main players in this never-quite-ending drama, including with the North's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, as always, the former president was at his most comfortable delivering his message to ordinary citizens.

"I implore you," he said in his familiar, slightly gravelly Southern-tinged voice. "You have to finish the job".

A little earlier he had walked across Derry's Peace Bridge with John Hume and his wife Pat, before the trio arrived onstage. And just before they appeared, native son Phil Coulter had sat at a grand piano on the stage at the other side of Guildhall Square, just under the City Walls, and sung 'The Town I Love So Well', his own composition and a favourite of the former president's.

"I would've come here and not said a word, just to hear him sing that one more time in my life," declared Bill as he thanked him.

The former president was utterly at ease. Having visited the North regularly since 1995, he is on familiar turf. He looks older than he did then, of course, a good deal thinner and less robust.

But the magic hasn't entirely dimmed, and the wily wizard can still cast a spell. He began by recalling his first speech in the Square at a time when peace was a very fragile reality.

"It was very intimidating to speak from this spot if you'd never done it before – in part because you had to speak while the cannon were facing you, and you had the feeling that if you said the wrong thing . . . which was quite easy to do back then, all you had to do was open your mouth," he joked as laughter rose from the crowd.

And then he worked his charm. He said other countries dealing with conflicts "have looked to you for inspiration".

He talked about countries and regions such as Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, Colombia and the Basque region of Spain. "Never underestimate the impact that this small place has had on the larger world because of that peace agreement," he told the crowd.

HE warned that the work of the Peace Process was not yet complete, with unresolved disputes remaining over flags and parades. "You have to finish the job," he said. "There are still issues that remain unresolved since the 19 years since the ceasefire and 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement. How that is resolved is not for me to say, it is for you."

Mr Clinton also paid tribute to former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, and also to the late South Africa leader Nelson Mandela.

One lone voice in the Square began to loudly heckle him, while three protesters held up anti-Iraq war placards. Bill paused and looked at the heckler: "Do you want to give this speech?" he asked, before continuing unruffled.

There's a touch of the old-style preacher about Bill Clinton, and he told a parable about Nelson Mandela, recounting how he had once asked the South Africa leader if, as he had made his historic walk to freedom, he had hated his captors "all over again".

Bill continued: "He said, 'Yes I did, but I got to the gate where I was to get in the car and ride out to freedom and I said to myself, If you hate them when you get in that car, you'll still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free and so I let it go.'"

The still-great communicator had one last appeal. "Live in the future, think of tomorrow," he told the crowd. "What kills people is not adversity. What kills people's spirit is believing that every tomorrow is going to be just like yesterday," he said.

There were cheers and applause when he finished. As he made his way along the barriers, shaking hands and chatting to people, the quartet of protesters (and their dog) happily posed for photos when requested by school-kids clutching phones, as a couple of PSNI officers hovered dutifully.

"Smile," requested one uniformed teenage girl to a protester, and he obliged.

Peace may come dropping slow, but yet it still drops steadily enough for any traveller to this city to recognise that Derry's past is now a very different country indeed.

Irish Independent

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