Monday 20 November 2017

A script-free master class, with a generous sprinkle of stardust

WHAT a rare sight. As the political figure walked into the O'Reilly Hall in UCD, which was packed to the rafters, the 450 guests all rose as one and gave him a standing ovation.

Now when was the last time that happened in Ireland? Alas for the members of the Oireachtas, it wasn't one of their own, but an American who has a habit of leaving a bit of stardust in his wake as he travels the globe.

And it was clear from the reception he received at the Business & Finance Awards dinner that the 42nd president of the US, Bill Clinton, is still a political A-lister. He had already been in Ireland for a couple of days on his sixth trip here, first visiting Derry on Wednesday before travelling to Dublin for a series of engagements.

On Wednesday evening he dined in the Unicorn restaurant, and yesterday seemed to relish the lack of fanfare that greeted his appearance in the capital. "It's great to be walking around Dublin without so much security," he laughed shortly after he arrived at UCD.

And it was a far more relaxed affair than the usual hysterical paranoia that surrounds any visit anywhere by an incumbent US president. After officially opening the Clinton Institute for American Studies on the campus, he strolled across the lawn, past a small crowd of cheering students and into the full-to-capacity lecture hall.

Using no notes or script, he spoke about humanitarian issues for more than half an hour, before taking questions on a range of topics around Northern Ireland.

Inevitably the event ran late, but nobody minded. When he spoke about the current turmoils in US politics, it was a master class on the subject.

"He's a nightmare when it comes to schedules," sighed one veteran, who marches with him on many of his global peregrinations, as a small greeting party waited for him to show up in the O'Reilly Hall.

But it was worth the wait. First there were speeches from other guests such as Denis O'Brien and philanthropist Loretta Glucksman, who was honoured for her work with the American Ireland Fund.

Also present were chief executive of Independent News and Media Gavin O'Reilly, businessman Tony O'Reilly Jnr, plus Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe and Fine Gael's Enda Kenny. And then Bill took to the stage.

Despite the glitz of the event, the black tie and glamorous dresses that filled the hall, it was all still taking place against the grim backdrop of the shadow of Anglo and the appalling news of the lost billions.

But Clinton had faith. "I believe you'll get out of this, but not fast," he told the silent audience. "That's what I tell politicians making tough decisions. Tell people the truth, do what has to be done. People have to believe you'll pay your bills, and then say how we will get out of this," he said.

"When you've got the walls closing in on you, and you're under great stress, it's more important than ever to think that when the temperature turns up, the people who are making decisions have to cool down. This is a highly complex mess we're living through, but there is nothing wrong with us we can't fix," he stressed.

When he finished, the cheers raised the roof.

Sometimes Hope is more than just a one-horse town in Arkansas.

Irish Independent

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