By Susan Falvella Garraty and Anne Cadwallader
President Clinton is intent on giving the troubled peace process a shot in the arm when he makes landfall in Belfast this week.
Clinton was optimistic that he could bring new momentum to the process in Northern Ireland even as people still struggled to recover in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb carnage.
"They’ve been working a long time on a peace process in which we have been intimately involved and I’m going to do my best to advance that. I think we have a good chance to do so," Clinton said before heading to Andrews Air Force Base.
White House officials have expressed hope that his visit will continue to inspire concessions from both nationalist and unionists.
"We have had people working from here and on the ground in the North to work especially on achieving progress with lists of the missing and on decommissioning," a White House official said.
"We don’t just want him to have something to wave, we are hoping to help make some breakthroughs," said an official.
The White House is very sensitive to the supposition, put forward by some in the North, that Clinton is using his visit to dig himself out of his own domestic slump.
In particular, administration staff reiterate that Clinton’s now confirmed visit to Omagh was scheduled at the request of others.
"People were actually reaching out to us here. The families asked for us to come," said a White House spokeswoman.
"We didn’t want recognition or to become the center of attention. They said it would make them feel better. The families felt that was what they needed."
Another administration official said that the president had weighed in and the decision was then made for him to go to Omagh.
"It was instinctual for the president to want to go there, but he wanted to be very careful not to add any additional burden to the people there," the official said.
On a visit to Omagh last week, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith, said she believed the bomb there was the end of terrorism in Ireland. She said President Clinton had the people of Ireland in his thoughts.
Clinton arrives in Belfast Thursday — Mrs. Clinton will arrive on Wednesday to address the Vital Voices women’s conference — and will meet with Northern Ireland Assembly members and other leaders. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he will then travel to Omagh.
On Friday, Clinton meets with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and other political leaders in Dublin.
On Saturday, Clinton concludes his visit to Ireland with a golf game in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry.
Aides originally were going to scrap a planned speech in Armagh to make room for the Clinton’s visit to Omagh. However, it was announced before his departing Washington that Clinton would make both appearances.
And all appearance are suddenly additionally important. Far from moving closer together in the run-up to the presidential visit, relations between the main unionist party and Sinn Féin were frigid this week, at least up to the Gerry Adams statement on Tuesday committing Sinn Féin to "making conflict a thing of the past." That statement prompted a cautious if not exactly joyous immediate response from unionists.
Judging from phone calls to radio talk shows, meanwhile, some people feel that Clinton’s visit is self-serving and designed to take the spotlight off the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Some are criticizing the president for his decision to bomb alleged Muslim fundamentalist centers in Sudan and Afghanistan, claiming he is hypocritical to then condemn the Omagh bombing by the Real IRA.
These phone callers are not necessarily reflective of public opinion, however. When Clinton visited in 1995, there were claims that no one would turn out to see him. But he was swamped by enthusiastic crowds.
This week’s visit, to Belfast, Omagh and Armagh, where a peace rally will be held, is likely to be less heady, as people face the stark reality that peace is only hard won. But Clinton’s role in the process is understood by the majority of people who support the good Friday Agreement.
Hardliners check in
This doesn’t stop the political argument, however. Both the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin issued hardline statements this week that boded ill for the future of the agreement, the Assembly, due to reconvene in two weeks, and the proposed power-sharing Executive.
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble demanded what he calls "credible" arms decommissioning before he will even consider taking his seat alongside Sinn Féin in the Executive.
Fellow Ulster Unionist, Jim Nicholson, said there could be no further progress without IRA decommissioning.
Unionists would not sit in government with what he called "unreconstructed terrorists" who have shown no remorse for violence.
"The British government has made massive concessions without reciprocation and Sinn Féin must deliver or be sidelined," he said
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has accused the UUP of deliberately leaking the minutes of a private meeting UUP officials had with the British government, during which party spokesmen said that, given the option, they would not now endorse the Good Friday Agreement.
Mitchell McLaughlin of Sinn Féin said the UUP was trying to renegotiate the Agreement and called on both governments to ensure David Trimble honored his commitments to the proposed institutions.
Trimble, in turn, said of Sinn Féin: "We cannot work with them if they are not prepared to decommission." He also said Gerry Adams must say publicly that the IRA’s war is over.
Trimble called on the SDLP to put pressure on Sinn Féin and said the IRA had not even nominated a person to liaise with the decommissioning body, chaired by Canadian general, John de Chastelain.
It was revealed this week that Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has met de Chastelain more than once, but reports that he did so on behalf of the IRA were denied by Sinn Féin.
Meanwhile, the Sentence Review Commissioners announced that the first 17 prisoners in the North to be released under the terms of the Stormont Agreement, including one lifer, could be released as early as Sept. 7.
As many as 200 could be free by the end of October. Brian Currin, a leading South African human rights lawyer and joint chairman of the SRC, said the times and numbers would vary according to the paperwork.
Against this backdrop, people living on the Garvaghy Road have written to the Orange Order asking for direct dialogue, in the "window of opportunity" that exists at the end of the marching season.
They say that, bearing in mind the tragic and devastating consequences which the conflict over marching has had, it is imperative that direct dialogue takes place to avoid repetition.
This weekend, nationalists in Portadown were threatened by a mob of loyalists who ran through a shopping center close to their homes. One man required hospital attention.
For the past seven weeks, loyalists have been mounting regular night-time protests close to nationalist homes, resulting in an atmosphere of continuing tension and intimidation.
Orangemen are still protesting at Drumcree, saying their July march is "on hold" only until they can parade their traditional route. They have lodged multiple applications to march down the Garvaghy road in September and October.
Also this week, the Parades Commission banned a loyalist flute band contest in Crumlin, Co. Antrim, planned for this Saturday. The 30 bands involved are banned from entering any part of the village.
The Parades Commission said the parade would risk public disorder and damage to property, disrupt community relations and the life of the community. The commission also banned the proposed Orange march down the Garvaghy Road this Sunday.