By Susan Falvella-Garraty
DUNDALK, Co. Louth — With the Northern Ireland peace process in need of a boost, its most powerful political champion, President Bill Clinton, began his third and final presidential visit to Ireland Tuesday with stops in Dublin and the traditionally republican stronghold of Dundalk.
And as if in a metaphorical answer to the stalled peace process, the weather did not cooperate with the president’s progress.
Because of cloudy, rainy weather, Clinton had to travel to Dundalk by road instead of helicopter.
It was a slower end to a day that had started rapidly enough. Upon arrival on Irish soil, Clinton was quick off the mark in thanking the Irish people, North and South, who had embraced him when many in his own country sought to impeach him, and who had worked to create an environment where peace might find a permanent home.
From the moment he walked off Air Force One with his wife and family, Clinton wrapped himself in the acceptance and popularity Dublin in particular, and Ireland in general, was ready to offer.
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The morning brought some sunshine as Clinton helicoptered to Phoenix Park to meet with the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Michael Sullivan.
Clinton went on to have a private meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Before the meeting, the president at least partly put to rest rumors that he might take on an ongoing position in the peace process when he leaves office Jan. 20.
A White House adviser had said before Clinton’s departure for Ireland that the president might consider maintaining a role in the peace process when he leaves office.
"I think the new president, whoever it may be, will want to have a new team in place. And I want to support that. I will support whatever decision the new administration makes, and if I can be a resource, I will," Clinton said.
Clinton sounded hopeful of finding resolutions to some of the North’s thorniest issues in the next few weeks.
"I think the leaders just have to find a way through the last three or four difficult issues, and I think it can be done," he said in an address to a gathering of political and business leaders at the Guinness brewery in the Liberties section of Dublin.
Clinton caused laughter when he said: "I have wondered how I got involved in all this."
He said that America had suffered with Ireland through the Troubles but had seemed paralyzed and prevented from playing a constructive role.
"When I became president, I decided to change America’s policy in the hope that, in the end, not only the Irish, but the British too, would be better off. I think it is unquestionable. After eight years of effort, thanks to the people and leaders of Northern Ireland, of the Republic and of Great Britain, that the people of Ireland and the people of Britain are better off for the progress that has been made toward peace."
Nobody, Clinton said, wanted to go back to the Troubles.
Bold words apart, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, cautioned reporters not to look for the president’s presence and efforts to produce immediate results.
"The fact of the president’s trip itself has intensified the pace of discussions," Berger said, "but I don’t have any expectations of resolutions tomorrow — or breakthroughs."
American officials hope that the many private discussions with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume will reassure nationalists of the president’s commitment towards installing a reasonable and acceptable policing framework and additional British troop withdrawals in the North.
Clinton’s visit to Dundalk was supposed to be via helicopter, but weather forced a road trip lasting almost two hours.
Officials stressed that the president’s presence in Dundalk was not designed to throw down a gauntlet to the Real IRA, the group linked to the Omagh bombing, which is said to be strongly represented in the border town. Officials said they just wanted to highlight the economic benefits of peace. Xerox Corporation located a large facility in Dundalk, a move that has been a big economic boost for the local economy.
Clinton is being accompanied on his trip by a delegation of U.S. lawmakers. The delegation, which includes Sen. Chris Dodd, Rep. Peter King, and Rep. Joe Crowley, is smaller than those of the last two visits. The scaled-down atmosphere also lent a bit more intimacy between the players as advisors from all sides huddled during speeches and in between events.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t all work for the Clinton party on Day One. Before making his Dundalk speech, Hillary and Chelsea joined Clinton in some shopping expeditions at the Blarney Woollen Mills. He took armloads of sweaters, which he handed off to an aide. Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea too put a dent in their Christmas lists.
The president also made time for a beer, something of a tradition for visiting American presidents.Clinton was joined by the taoiseach at Fagan’s in Drumcondra. The time was 4:30 in the afternoon, and a reporter asked Clinton if it wasn’t a bit too early for a drink.
"It’s never too early to have a pint," was the reply from a president better known for his fondness for diet soda.
Clinton will meet on Wednesday with UUP leader David Trimble. Trimble is expected to press Clinton to pressure the Provisional IRA to start giving up its arms.
"We will make every effort to get the de Chastelain commission something to do," said a concerned U.S. official of the international arms decommissioning body.
Even some advisors that have represented the administration in the past in peace negotiations have shown up in Belfast over the last two weeks to make a final push. One of them voiced cautious optimism. "It’s very, very close, but I think we will see results from this week’s efforts," he said.
To coincide the Clinton’s visit to Ireland and Britain, Peace Watch Ireland is planning a protest against "the gutting of policing reforms in Northern Ireland." The protest will take place outside the British Consulate in Manhattan on Sunday, Dec. 17 from 1-3 p.m. For details call (917) 771-4633.