'Nailing the Balance', from, When the President Calls,
|Glad we 're finally making it|
|Fascinated from the day it began|
|Nailing the balance|
|A chill warms on the Shankill|
|A factory lock-out crisis|
|A cavalry charge to the Wild West|
|Leader of the west goes east|
|Paying homage to Hume|
|Days like this|
Bill Clinton's visit to Northern Ireland in November 1995 was an exhilarating news event to cover. It was history and a good story to tell. It was as it remains, a pinnacle in the peace process, one that deserves to be recounted with the benefit of insight and hindsight. In doing so we seek to offer no judgement on Clinton as President. We are too far removed for that.
This book owes a debt to a great many people, not least to those in the American Government who from the outset rewarded our enthusiasm with a tremendous degree of co-operation. Few can be given the recognition they warrant here as their assistance was granted only under guarantee they would remain anonymous sources. However, one of those who can be thanked by name, and very deservedly so, is Kathleen Stephens. She gave generously of her time and we would not have been granted high-level access at the White House but for her. We would also like to express our appreciation to Blair Hall, whose help proved equally invaluable.
Regrettably, representatives of the British Government displayed an initial reluctance to match this American goodwill. That it was brought to something nearing parity was due to one source, who must remain anonymous, and we would like to thank him again.
Approximately two hundred interviews were conducted in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, London, New York and Washington. It says something about people's affinity with the subject that of all those involved in the Clinton trip, be it centrally or on the periphery, only two people were unable to help, one did so for security reasons, the other was Van Morrison.
Our appreciation goes to everyone who gave of their time. There are too many to list them all, but we would like to put on record our special thanks, in no order of merit, to the following: Jim Lyons; Mike McCurry; Jamie Lindsay; Pat Dougan; Gary McMichael; Admiral William Crowe; Bill Flynn; Niall O'Dowd; Bruce Morrison; Sir Patrick Mayhew; Sir John Kerr; Albert Reynolds; Dick Spring; Jackie Redpath; Sammy Douglas; John Hume; Peter Sheridan; John Keanie; John Kerr; David Trimble; Jeffrey Donaldson; Peter Robinson; Ian Paisley Jr; Chris Dodd; Peter King; Dermot Gallagher; Gerry Adams; Richard McAuley; Jim Walsh; Tom Manton; Richard Neal; Tony Lake; Ed Emerson; Lord Alderdice; David Ervine; Doug Heady; Billy Hutchinson; Bill Stewart; Brian Hanna; and Gerry Burns.
We are grateful to our publishers Guildhall Press for their part in salvaging the project when difficulties arose late in the day at our initial publishing house, Brandon Books, and who pulled out all the stops to meet our target publication date. We also express our deep gratitude to CableTel, who shared in the rescue operation by generously sponsoring our endeavours.
Our respected fellow journalist Eamonn Mallie was always a source of inestimable guidance and encouragement, particularly through difficult times. We acknowledge him for sharing his wisdom. Also thanks to Deric Henderson, David Davin-Power and Denzil McDaniel who cast an eye over extracts and offered advice and support. Mention too must go to John Harrison and his team of photographers, Marie Therese Hurson, Norman Evans and Arron McCracken; Crispin Rodwell and the White House for kindly allowing us to reproduce their photographs. Thanks also to the BBC, Sky News and GMTV for providing us with footage of the Clinton trip and to Yvonne Murphy and her staff at the Linenhall Library in Belfast.
Others helped in their own way: our employers Downtown Radio; Sheila Briggs, whose transcription of interviews saved us so much valuable time; Douglas Marshall who copy-edited the manuscript; Peter Malone who came up with the title; and Dylan O'Neill at Sam Hutchinson and Co. who assisted with technical support.
Finally some editorial notes. The introduction is drawn from responses
President Clinton made to a series of questions from the authors.
The titles and ranks of the personalities in this books are given
as they were at the time of the President's visit.
Julian O'Neill and Trevor Birney
Our day in Northern Ireland was indeed one of the most remarkable of our lives and a highlight of my Presidency. Today, almost two years later, I am still deeply moved by the warmth of the reception we were given and the palpable desire of the people we saw to come together in peace and reconciliation.
Though my expectations were high, my visit exceeded them in every respect. Even the weather co-operated. It was a great privilege to be the first sitting US President to visit Northern Ireland. I was there to show the desire of the United States to help and to support the peace process, not to impose a vision or a solution of our own. I'll never forget the faces of the people, young and old, of both traditions, who reached out to Hillary and me as we travelled through Belfast. I was very proud to represent the American people and to be able to share our ideals and experiences with the people in Northern Ireland.
I was already committed to supporting the peace process, but my visit gave that commitment a more personal dimension. I saw it as an outpouring of friendship for my country as well as an expression of hope and determination to move beyond the mistrust and bitterness of Northern Ireland's past, and I felt an even heavier duty to do what I can to help. Having the chance to meet people in their communities, to hear their hopes, shake their hands and see their enthusiasm for peace first-hand certainly strengthened my conviction that there is widespread support for a lasting settlement of the conflict. Since my visit, in spite of the setbacks in the peace process, I remain convinced that the prize is within reach and that America's support can help bring it about.
I said then, and I have said it many times since, that those who use violence must not be allowed to dictate the agenda for the rest of us. The courageous people who work for reconciliation and a lasting settlement are the ones who are shaping the future. The people of both communities who extended us such a warm welcome were expressing their commitment to a future built on dialogue and trust, not on violence and hatred. Their commitment to that goal is lasting, as is mine.
I welcome the restoration of the ceasefire. I have always believed that inclusive talks, on the basis of an unequivocal ceasefire, offer the best prospect for achieving a lasting settlement. The United States has loaned one of its great statesmen, Senator George Mitchell, to the talks process. I hope the parties and the British and Irish Governments will move forward with substantive negotiations.
I deeply hope that the parties and Governments will have reached
a negotiated settlement during my Presidency. America's role has
been helpful in supporting the peacemakers. I am confident we
will continue to play that role. But, as with any situation in
which people have been divided by a long-standing conflict, the
process of building trust and ties between Northern Ireland's
two communities is one of the most difficult. There are many parallels
with the American experience. I certainly hope I would be able
to play a part in the historic process of long-term reconciliation
even after 1 leave office.
William J. Clinton
42nd President of the United States of America
The President was concerned that we ensure all sides were touched, that we were not seen to be favouring one side or the other; that we were there to promote the peace process as a whole. That was the overriding aim of the whole trip.
Andrew Friendly, aide to the President
Albert Reynolds was the Ireland visit's salesman-in-chief outside the White House. On President Clinton's first St Patrick's Day in 1993, the wheeling-dealing Reynolds enquired when the President would be returning to Dublin. Clinton seemed somewhat surprised Reynolds knew he'd weekended in the city during his college days. "So you've been looking up the records too," joked the President. Reynolds was in touch in December and extended an invitation.
The following 17 March at the White House Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith whispered to Reynolds that Clinton was going to Europe. "Ask him to drop in," she suggested. But Reynolds had set his sights higher than a whistle-stop. "I said, 'Jean, I want to see him longer in Ireland than just a couple of hours on his way over because the system will convince him that that's enough."' He advanced the argument to Clinton, saying a two or three-hour stop-off wouldn't do Ireland, or the President, justice. Reynolds said they were in agreement. "He wasn't for this couple of hours thing. He wanted longer than that. I said to him, 'You can bring your mother as well,' and he said, 'No, there's too much racing in Ireland for her.' His mother is a real racing woman." (Clinton made reference to his mother's passion for horse-racing in an address in Dublin. She had passed away by then.)
Reynolds was undeterred by the fact violence was still raging in Northern Ireland, although he was only too well aware that efforts at securing an IRA ceasefire were underway. Leaving sentiment aside, the White House couldn't sanction a trip, certainly to Belfast, ahead of a truce and given Clinton's pronouncements and interest in the Northern Ireland situation he would have exposed himself to criticism in steering clear. "When he rang me after the IRA ceasefire I said a visit would be an opportunity for the Irish people - north and south - to say thank you," Reynolds said. "I, knew he was certainly committed to do it. It was only a question of. making the arrangements and that was up to other people." The President's desire was detected by his staff. Susan Brophy, Clinton aide and trip planner, recalled: "The President had always expressed an interest in doing a trip to Ireland and soon after the ceasefire he was always talking about going. The ceasefire made the prospects. more interesting, certainly to go to the north. He may've only gone to the south otherwise." (Reynolds was bitterly disappointed he'd been forced from office by the time Clinton came, enabling his replacement John Bruton to bask in the glory.)
In May 1995 the White House hosted an investment conference on Northern Ireland in a bid to encourage American companies to underpin the peace with dollars. By then the White House was working with London and Dublin on a trip schedule which had become nightmare. In public, Washington couldn't yet commit to a visit in 1995, or indeed the prospect of Clinton going to Belfast. Privately however, that was never in doubt. "What really turned the Clinton team on was the idea of going to Northern Ireland," observed one American source. "It was almost like they would suffer through the visit to London because they knew they couldn't just go to Belfast. Most of the energy and most of the intensity of the trip and planning had to do with the Northern Ireland angle." It had been envisaged that the dates would be agreed in time for the President to dramatically announce his visit during a conference finale speech on the White House lawn.
An enterprising Northern Ireland journalist in Washington for the event put the President on the spot after his address. Broadcaster Eamonn Mallie managed to slip into a line-up as the President worked the crowd and with microphone at the ready was introduced to the unsuspecting Clinton by Gerry Burns, Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council. Mallie bounced in with a question on when the President would call. "I hope to be there in the fall," responded Clinton. Burns, like the reporter, had a duty to perform. He'd brought with him scrolls purporting to trace the President's ancestors, the Cassidys, back to Fermanagh in the eighteenth century. "He expressed great interest," remembered Burns. "It gave me an opportunity to at least say back home that I had delivered these things in person to the President."
Behind the scenes, the Americans accused the British of giving problems on dates for a Presidential visit, be it Major's diary or the Queen's. The whole concept of Clinton venturing into Northern Ireland was something Downing Street wanted to give the utmost consideration to. The timing had to be helpful in terms of the peace process and it didn't want Sinn +Féin or the IRA to be able to exploit it. The Irish, who had no such scheduling predicaments, grumbled that London's awkwardness was indicative of what they interpreted as being reservations about the visit. Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring later ventured: "The British do not like or want Northern Ireland up in lights for lots of reasons. It is one of their unsolved, unresolved historical problems and they probably wouldn't have wanted Bill Clinton in Northern Ireland if it had been a straight choice." But the British Ambassador to Washington, Sir John Kerr, quashed the theory they were lukewarm on the trip, recalling a conversation he had had with Prime Minister Major when he was the UK's Permanent Representative to the European Union. "I first talked to Major about it at some European meeting in June - I was still over in Brussels. Major was keen on the idea."
The NIO had a say on timing, but like the Foreign Office it was purely in an advisory capacity to Downing Street which, through Private Secretary Rod Lyne, was negotiating with Lake at the White House on dates, together with the trip's objectives. Edward Oakden, Assistant Private Secretary whose brief covered foreign policy and Northern Ireland, also spoke at length and with frequency to Lake and Soderberg A British source described the Lyne-Lake working relationship as "good and easy." However, a US official admitted that while that might have been the case on issues like Bosnia, their rapport on Northern Ireland wasn't an especially good one. It had been poisoned by distrust flowing from the granting of the first Adams visa. The episode had also undermined Lake's standing among some staff within the US's London Embassy to such an extent that when he asked Clinton to withdraw his nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency in the midst of bruising Senate confirmation hearings in spring 1997 one source said: "There were no tears shed in Downing Street or this Embassy when the nomination went down the tubes."
At the White House, Director of Communications Mark Gearan was expending considerable energy in attempting to pin down dates, mulling over various options that could have seen Clinton do it on the way to or from this or that, but all the while not wanting to let the politically opportune moment slip. Gearan, whose grandparents were Irish immigrants, said: "The stars were aligned, so to get it locked into the schedule was most important. It's hard to read the tea leaves of what you get up from the State Department and what people's own views are versus the British Government's views. Sometimes things are what they are and schedules don't work. Sometimes schedules are used for a reason. At the end of the day it all did work out, but it did take a determined push that it was going to happen." Days in August, September, October were all floated, but finding dates agreeable to the three leaders proved frustratingly elusive for more than a month.
A communiqué from the White House finally came, on 6 July, in a statement from the Office of the Press Secretary. "The President is pleased to accept the invitations of the British and Irish Governments to visit the United Kingdom and Ireland, November 29 - December 2. In the UK the schedule will include meetings in London with Prime Minister Major and a visit to Northern Ireland; and in Ireland a meeting with Prime Minister Bruton. The goals of the trip include strengthening the transatlantic partnership in which the United Kingdom plays such a special role, nurturing our close ties of friendship and culture with Ireland, and underscoring the President's support for the joint efforts of the Irish and British Governments and the people of Northern Ireland to achieve a lasting and peaceful settlement."
For the British Government, great emphasis had been placed on ensuring Clinton went to London, then Belfast, before setting foot in the Republic. The possibility that British 'partnership' could be subverted by Irish 'friendship' was almost inconceivable to them, but in view of the open warfare with the Administration over the Adams visas they weren't going to leave anything to chance. "The British Government was clear the order of the visit should be London, Belfast, Dublin, rather than the other way around. It might have been the American idea too, but for us that was quite an important point," said Kerr. Mayhew backed him: "It was very important the President, as the head of state of our most powerful and closest ally, should come to London first." Logistics were on their side. London, as the UK's capital, had, for reasons of protocol, to precede Belfast so visiting Dublin first would have meant the Presidential party and its large support staff having to cross the Irish Sea twice in a period of a few days. The case was strongly put by the British Embassy in Washington from the outset and was reinforced by Kerr on his arrival as successor to Sir Robin Renwick in September.
Kerr, an engaging 55-year-old Oxford-educated Scot, quickly decided to go on the offensive, endearing himself to Unionists in the process. "He's the first Ambassador not afraid to dish the Irish," said one prominent Ulster Unionist MP. By then he'd won over Northern Ireland's three members of the European Parliament after helping secure multi-millions from Brussels coffers for a special Peace and Reconciliation Fund following the double ceasefire. Other politicians were delighted his appointment reversed a trend of London diplomats disadvantaged by cutting too much of a colonial dash in America. Kerr, who established a tradition of St Patrick's Day luncheons at his residence, had formerly headed up the vast Embassy's political section and had dealt with tricky Irish-related issues such as the MacBride fair employment campaign, high-profile IRA extradition cases and NORAID fundraising.
His insight into the intricacies of the peace process while out of the loop in Brussels came courtesy of none other than John Major, whom he believed cared passionately for it. "He used to tell me quite a lot about things. I would brief him on some European Community problem and quite frequently his eyes would glaze over and he would say, 'Jolly interesting, John,' then tell me about Northern Ireland." As Ambassador, Kerr ensured letters from the public which questioned British policy in Northern Ireland received answers. hot issues these could number three hundred per day. He was also wont to ring up to register protest at what he judged unreasonably harsh newspaper editorials. However, he realised his Embassy couldn't do battle alone and one of his first acts was to call theUUP leader David Trimble and urge him to travel to Washington for talks with the Clinton Administration at the first available opportunity. Kerr told him he would do all in his power to ensure Trimble enjoyed face time with the President. "It's a great mistake to stay back the other side of the Atlantic and complain about the debate America. The parties need to do their own thing. They'd got to join the debate," argued Kerr. When he presented his diplomatic credentials to Clinton and the conversation inevitably turned to Northern Ireland, Kerr suggested the President might help soothe Unionist anger at the treatment of Adams and lingering unease about his Administration's agenda by meeting its leaders.
Like his predecessors however, Kerr found himself playing catch-up with the Irish Embassy based further down Washington's Massachusetts Avenue. With Britain's considerable interests in the US being much more diverse - it was for example the nation's biggest foreign investor - the Irish had been free to concentrate resources - on cultivating Washington's movers and shakers over the Northern Ireland issue for years, long before it was a topic of discussion in the Oval Office. Their links with politicians on Capitol Hill impressed Kerr. An Irish Prime Minister, like no other world leader, knew he had the President's ear on a predetermined date each year, 17 March, St Patrick's Day. Under Clinton the day had been elevated in social importance. To the traditional handing over of a bowl of shamrock and a meeting between the President and Taoiseach was added a soirée at the White House. The Speaker of the House of Representatives also hosted a lunch for them.
Irish Ambassador Dermot Gallagher set out to conquer Clinton the minute the polling booths closed in November 1992 and counting started. "While other Ambassadors watched the results on their television sets our man was on his way to Little Rock," crowed Reynolds, who dubbed Gallagher Ireland's greatest Ambassador. Gallagher, Leitrim born and Ambassador since 1991, travelled to the Arkansas state capital the night it toasted victory and tracked down the President-elect at a party. Hovering around Secret Service agents positioned on a staircase, he waited, then collared his man. "We had a good conversation," recalled Gallagher. "This is when we first learned he had spent a weekend in Dublin while at Oxford. He told me he had a glorious weekend. He intended to see part of the country but he didn't get beyond Dublin he enjoyed it so much." As fate would have it Clinton wouldn't get beyond the Irish capital on his forthcoming trip either, despite the best laid plans. (In the end Clinton's Ireland trip had a day shaved off at the end. What was to have been day two of his visit to the Republic, with a round of golf planned at Ballybunion in Kerry, got axed as he'd to fly to Germany and see-off US troops bound for Bosnia.)
The Office of Presidential Advance at the White House has a staff of just eight, surprising given that it pre-plans the movements of the world's most powerful man at home and abroad. The Vice President has his own even smaller version. The office's foot soldiers are drawn from the ranks of volunteers who have enough flexibility in their nine-to-five jobs to take two weeks' holiday to go and work for the President. Many are young - sometimes party activists who cut their teeth zigzagging the US on election campaign events. "Volatile 24-year-olds who can come and break all the crockery," was how an American with experience of numerous Presidential trips described them. The prestige makes up for the pay, $30-a-day on top of accommodation and travel. A director heads the office. For the visit to the UK and Ireland it was 44-year-old Paige Reefe. By the end of his two-year tenure he'd have been to 26 countries but none he felt was fraught with anything like the political dangers and the potential for catastrophe as the Northern Ireland trip. At his disposal were specialists, like Brady Williamson, and personnel at US Embassies and Consulates.
Williamson was involved in Democratic Party politics in his home state and had been an assistant to former Senator and defeated 1984 Presidential aspirant Walter Mondale. His father's side of the family had relatives from County Antrim but he had never been to Ireland. A job in the Administration didn't appeal to him, though he enjoyed attachments to Presidential Advance on trips to Japan and Russia that had earned him a tremendous respect among his peers. "He is sophisticated about overseas things and he's very good at delegating and keeping people in tune," said a colleague. Williamson seized the opportunity to do the trip, firstly as it was virgin soil for a President and secondly because of the political and logistical challenges. Doing Paris or London, for example, was too ordinary. There were templates that could lifted from previous visits and there was a certain drill to be followed regardless - seeing the Queen and dropping by the Elysée Palace. "It would be a waste of Brady's talents to send him out to do an easy one," said one of those who worked with him in Belfast.
The Belfast leg of Clinton's visit was to re-unite Williamson. with a career diplomat, Blair Hall, who in the summer of 1995 was a political counsellor at the London Embassy and who would become "one of the top three brains on Northern Ireland," according to a Grosvenor Square associate. Hall's education in the sectarian geography of Belfast began in late summer on a first guided tour o the likes of the Falls and Shankill Roads, riding with an official from the Belfast Consulate in its armour-plated car. His and Williamson's mutual admiration and friendship grew out of the President's first foreign excursion, a G7 summit in Tokyo in July 1993 where Hall was then posted. "When you find really good State Department people who understand the magnitude of a Presidential visit you grab them. No matter where in the world they are, if you get anywhere close to them again you grab them back. Blair was one of those kind of people," said a trip organiser. Hall, key with Stephens in finessing the President's itinerary, also acted as the main on-the-ground liaison with the NIO through David Watkins at Central Secretariat. The two got on well.
The United States and British Governments had both shared diverging objectives on what the trip to Northern Ireland should achieve. London wanted the visit to further anchor down the peace process; to give Clinton a more balanced view of the region; and promote Northern Ireland in investment terms, thus building on the Washington trade conference. Washington had two distinct agendas. The first was to demonstrate that Clinton was genuinely interested in promoting peace in Northern Ireland and that in doing so he wasn't partisan. Given what had gone before, it would therefore be imperative that he reached out to a suspicious Protestant majority. Presidential aide and trip briefer Andrew Friendly said: "The President was concerned that we ensure all sides were touched, that we were not seen to be favouring one side or the other, that we were there to promote the peace process as a whole. That was the overriding aim of the whole trip." The second goal, for US domestic consumption on the verge of election year, was the projection of the image of the President as global statesman promoting peace in the spiritual and ancestral home of 44 million Irish-Americans. "That was one of the main reasons he wanted to go," said Ambassador William Crowe, with a military man's characteristic disregard for political subtlety. "He wanted to convey an image to the American people that he's involved, that his heart is in the right place and that he is appreciated overseas." This worried London, and indeed some Americans, because of the implications for the President's schedule. "The likelihood was some people were going to say to him, 'Ain't no votes being seen to shake hands with Unionists, lots of votes being seen with your arms around Nationalists.' So we were slightly concerned," said one British official. Sir Patrick Mayhew summed up Unionist anxiety: "There was a great sensitivity among the pro-Union community that the President should not come here and even inadvertently give aid and comfort by seeming to show favour to Republican Nationalists." The British Government's apprehension was made all the more acute by those who began attaching themselves to the planning of the trip within the Administration.
The President's visit to Ireland unsurprisingly tugged at the heartstrings of Irish-Americans in the Clinton White House, all of whom wanted a slice of the action. As well as Gearan and Brophy, there were Kitty Higgins, Cabinet Secretary, and Vice President Al Gore's Chief of Staff, Jack Quinn, who led the visit's Washington-based co-ordinating committee. Lucie Naphin, one of the trip planners and who had family ties to the west of Ireland, said: "I'd worked on numerable foreign trips for the President but I never had to deal with a personal love for a country like I did with this trip. It was really hard for me. Part of the role I had to play was to say, 'Hold on guys, let's forget who our descendants are and where we come from. We need to focus on what the President needs to do.'" But the Irish clique's involvement had alarm bells ringing, not only in Belfast and London, but among some attached to the White House as well. "There was a predisposed 'buy' before we got there, based on the fact the majority of the domestic political people who would be involved in Irish issues in the US would be Catholic as opposed to Protestant," said a source.
Higgins travelled on the first of two reconnaissance missions to the UK and Ireland on September 26-8, known as the site survey. The group also included Reefe, Hall, Friendly, Naphin, Ambassador Molly Raiser, Chief of Protocol at the State Department, Martha Pope, senior aide to Senator George Mitchell, and Fred Dohse, a military officer from the NSC. Naphin, as trip scheduler, and Friendly, who was trip co-ordinator, personally briefed Clinton on "mechanical aspects" of his visit. The politics were left to Lake and Soderberg. Secretary of State Warren Christopher also had an in put. Before the group arrived on its fact-finding foray there was disquiet among US officials in Britain over how the President's itinerary was shaping up. One described it as "not very co-ordinated," another that there was a dearth of good ideas for events outside Londonderry. Washington was suggesting that Clinton jetted into Derry first, visited the predominantly-Nationalist village of Rosslea in County Fermanagh and when in Belfast attended a political r ception to which it was stressed Gerry Adams must be invited. A document circulating in the London Embassy and Belfast Consulate dated 22 September spelled out the reservations: "As it now stands the schedule fails to meet our crucial objective of not only demonstrating US even-handedness in the peace process but of actively reaching out to the majority Unionist community in Northern Ireland."
Events under consideration for Derry, the city on which most emphasis had to that juncture been placed (together with the involvement of John Hume) caused most anxiety. Stateside, thought was given to taking the President to the SDLP leader's country retreat at Greencastle on the County Donegal coast, overlooking Lough Foyle. Hume was fond of telling visitors the next parish west was Boston and Clinton would certainly have been made to feel at home amidst the busts of President Kennedy and the framed copy of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, a gift from the late civil rights leader's wife, Coretta. (Hume and Clinton shared the same political heroes.) The Irish Government felt very strongly that Clinton must go to Derry as well as Belfast. One counter-balance suggested by Stephens was a stop-off, either on the way to or from Londonderry, at the Andrew Jackson Centre in the mainly Protestant County Antrim town of Carrickfergus. It pays homage to the seventh US President, who occupied the White House from 1829-37 and whose parents left the area not long before he was born in South Carolina. However, it never figured in the final schedule owing to the heavy demands on Clinton's time and, to a lesser extent, because the balance was righted elsewhere. It was the second occasion the centre had been overlooked on a Presidential visit: Reagan had been invited to perform the official opening while in Ireland in 1984.
Two Foreign Office officials from London, Maurice Dalton, Deputy Head of Protocol, and desk officer Pauline Butler joined the site survey team in Northern Ireland. The pair were there to offer the NIO team logistical advice and were slightly concerned at how much the Americans planned to squeeze into Clinton's day. Dalton, the British side's senior member for the survey, was "as institutional as people get," according to an accompanying American. Also from the British side were two security personnel, one from the Foreign Office, one from the Metropolitan Police, and Mike Maxwell and Valerie Steele from the Northern Ireland Office. Two RUC officers, including Henry Ervine, accompanied them. It wasn't uncommon for Met. officers to work with the local force on visits, particularly by the Queen or other members of the Royal family, and there was the added bonus of the experience they had gained doing previous Presidential trips to London. The conspicuous 35-strong group was bussed from location to location, casting an eye over factories, business parks and tourist attractions. It was the British side's first real appreciation of the scale of the US operation, which even in the opening stages overwhelmed its own. "There was a mis-match of resources in terms of us and the Americans, who threw absolutely everything at this," observed one on the UK side.
The Americans arrived with a few fixed ideas that needed showcasing at well-chosen locations: the President wanted to give a speech, meet people from both sides and see politicians at a reception. And where he was to perform these usually mundane tasks was crucial, notjust in terms of whose turf, Protestant or Catholic, he choose to do them on. "Whenever the President travels overseas it's indispensable we communicate a sense of place so that people in America not only know where he is by pictures, but by seeing where he is they understand why he is where he is," said a senior member of the US planning team.
One place which was eliminated following the site survey was a Clinton people event at one of Belfast's so-called 'peacelines, - -grim high walls or iron fences erected in flashpoint neighbourhoods to keep the city's rival factions apart. Across the Atlantic the President's team had conjured up an image of a triumphant Clinton striding through an opening in some Berlin Wall-type structure, symbolically uniting flag-waving crowds on each side. In its scenario, Belfast's version of the Brandenburg Gate was considered to be Lanark Way, a road linking the Shankill and Falls. So regularly had it been used as a channel of attack by one side or the other that huge spike-topped double gates were eventually set in place to block terrorist bolt-hole at certain times of day. In truth the Americans didn't take much convincing to scrub the idea when confronted by the eyesore, and on second thoughts agreed an event showing 'peaceline's' bricks and mortar could backfire by actually reinforcing the division within Northern Ireland society. Said one Briti Government official: "In terms of effect it was hopeless. It would've been a public relations nightmare. It was a no no." The RUC which was against the idea, was worried about the risk, however small, of ugly scenes between the opposing communities.
A ramshackle tin-roofed cottage on a windswept hill in the border village of Rosslea was reputedly from where Clinton's grandfather five times removed, Luke Cassidy, left for the States over 250 years ago. The site survey team was under strict instructions from the President himself to make the 80-mile trek. Clinton told the authors: "Americans know it is very moving to visit the land of one's ancestors, to reflect on their difficult decision to emigrate. I would have liked to visit Fermanagh." The Americans, acting through the British, turned to Gerry Burns to act as tour guide but the fact-finding mission began disastrously when the usually-meticulous council Chief Executive failed to rendezvous with the visitors as planned at an agreed landmark. Burns had been in Belfast on business and returned home that evening to Enniskillen and a crisis. His telephone had been made red hot by a stream of frantic calls from the NIO, fielded by his daughter, anxiously enquiring where he was. They'd even phoned the editor of the local newspaper, Denzil McDaniel, to ask for help as the manhunt intensified. Burns, blood pressure soaring, realised he had made a wrong entry in his diary and drove like fury for Rosslea, only to pass the survey team bus returning in the opposite direction. He tailed them to an Enniskillen hotel and set about rescuing the situation. "I had allowed something to happen inadvertently and I could not blame anyone else. It was my fault. I apologised profusely to Valerie Steele who was very understanding." One American said the NIO official had earlier gone "three shades of purple" when Burns hadn't appeared. Burns arranged to meet them next morning but he had another problem - he'd no idea where the remote cottage was. For a second time that night Burns set out on the journey to Rosslea and with help of a priest eventually found the cottage, but as darkness had long closed in he, like the survey team, wouldn't see it until morning.
By then, to the concern of the Americans, the secret of their arrival had filtered out. "You don't cough in a place like Rosslea but everybody knows. Many of them were in pinstripe suits and carrying briefcases, not the usual scene to be found on a Fermanagh hillside," recalled Burns. He said they were happy with what they saw. "This was an old broken-down cottage which had no sign of habitation for centuries. They were dancing around highly excited." The group only got inside after clawing back a rusty iron door and removing several planks of wood. The floor was grass and what little light there was fell through a single, dirty window. There were two small rooms at either end of the main living quarters that measured 14 feet by 10, and there was a large fireplace. Burns said: "In terms of it being a country cottage there was no question about authenticity. I asked would they want it thatched and they said, 'No, no, it's to be left untouched.'" Those from Washington were snapping their cameras, taking notes and firing all manner of questions, like were the Cassidys Catholic or Protestant and were they genuinely Clinton ancestors. Burns wasn't sure but by that stage, having recovered from the embarrassment of the missed engagement, was in relaxed enough mood to crack a joke. "If you look above the fireplace you'll see a message scrawled in the stone. It says, 'Gone to Hope, Arkansas. Couldn't pay the rent.' They thought it was absolutely hilarious. I found their enthusiasm surprising. The place was not all that presentable but they thought it was wonderful. I got the impression the Foreign Office people were not as enthusiastic." An accompanying British official said: "Gerry discovered the cottage but I think he regrets it ever since. It was dilapidated and there was no way you were getting a cavalcade up the lane, but the Americans were delighted." Burns suggested they also take a look at Ballycassidy, a few miles north of Enniskillen. Unknown to him, SDLP leader John Hume had made the same recommendation to Clinton. "When I saw him he spoke of his Irish roots," said Hume. "I mentioned to him Ballycassidy - townland of the Cassidys. He was very interested and I said, 'When you come to Northern Ireland you will have to go to Ballycassidy.' He was keen."
The romance of Clinton discovering his roots, though, was rapidly overtaken by sheer logistical unfeasibility. Five helicopters would have been required to transport the President and his inner circle to Fermanagh, difficult terrain in potentially hazardous November weather. The remainder of the vast entourage would have got there after a 90 - minute road journey and a hike up a damp hillside. The prospect didn't appeal at all to the RUC who would have had to secure a route through five of the Province's six counties, and the White House Communications Agency was stumped as to how it would install telephone lines to a location not even wired for power. One senior American planner said: "There was nothing the and no reason to go that far. It was not a runner." An expedition to Rosslea would have eaten into too much of the President's valuable time on a trip that aspired to greater things. Consideration was given to Clinton flying to the village during the southern Irish leg of the trip but the Dublin Government and US Embassy staff there were against it. "Our parochial interest was having him here as much as we could get him here for," said one American source in the Irish capital. There was a feeling in Washington too that the press would have been cynical in its coverage of such an event. Explained Naphin: "We didn't want to put the President in a position where people were going to make a mockery out of it and prove us wrong.
On their return to Washington, Naphin and Friendly presented a report for Clinton and showed him the photographs of the Cassidy homestead. It was the first of two Cabinet Room briefings the President had with all those involved in the planning of the trip. Clinton shook his head and muttered "humble beginnings" as he glanced over pictures. "We spoke to the President and said, 'If you really want to go we can make anything happen', but there were other things that were much more of a priority," explained Naphin. "He said if it's not going to work it's not going to work. His feeling was maybe after I'm done being President I can go." Added Friendly: "Originally it was something he would've liked to have done but he understood the constraints."
Clinton's political friends were delighted Fermanagh was axed as a result of the site survey. "It was fortunate he didn't end up doing that," said Senator Chris Dodd. "Thatched cottages and all that garbage would've been seen as gilding the lily. Had he done it, it would've detracted from a trip that had nothing to do with ethnicity, lineage and grandparents." The White House had trouble reaching a definitive answer to the Clinton ancestral riddle. It was something it couldn't prove but not disprove either. It was deluged with research material, both posted in and hand delivered. Alliance Party leader Dr John Alderdice did an old friend Cahal Cassidy a big favour by taking voluminous material to a meeting with Administration officials. Mark Gearan looked over it and other papers. "This wasn't a pander to an ethnic group. The President's proud of his ancestry but it wasn't that clear. My view is if we tortured it it would've been off-key." Another US official summed it up. "Logistics were probably 85 per cent of the decision and 15 per cent was the uncertainty about the genealogical claim." (In Dublin Clinton popped into a pub called Cassidy's. Embassy staff learned of its existence by flicking through the telephone book.) The outcome was greeted with bitter disappointment in the lakeland county, which had been dreaming of enormous tourism spin-offs. "The visit of a President of the United States would've been of immense importance not only in investment but in terms of the marketing of the whole county," contended Burns. "If Clinton had appeared, the amount of publicity that would've been engendered Fermanagh couldn't have paid for in a decade." People in Rosslea itself felt let down. A local community organisation expressed its disappointment in writing to Kathy Stephens. "The excitement and anticipation of both young and old in this area has been dealt a sapping blow, wrote Patsy McPhillips, the group's secretary.
Though the decision as to whether the President would overnight in Northern Ireland would be taken at a higher level, the site survey team addressed its practicalities. Blighted by 27 years of violence, the region had a dearth of spacious, top quality hotels, so the options were limited. As the size of the Presidential entourage was around eight hundred, including the White House press corps, it was clear from the outset there wasn't a hotel big enough that could host the party en bloc, the preferred choice. The Europa was the only downtown option and, most importantly, it would convey the right message if selected. Said one of the US survey team: "The symbolism of the President staying in a place which had been bombed a number of times sent out the message this is a safe place to be, which was different than people thought. And part of the reason it was different is because, at least hopefully in our mind, the role that Bill Clinton had played in trying to help the peace process along, and that if someone of his stature could stay in a place that had this kind of history it spoke volumes." Consul General Stephens backed the overnight option too, believing a stay at the Europa would be a vote of confidence in the process second to none.
Some on the British side put up a security obstacle, provoking an embarrassing squabble on the tour bus between Belfast and Fermanagh when the RUC officers flatly contradicted their advice to the Americans. "The security guys in Northern Ireland weren't particularly ecstatic about the people who worked in the Foreign Office," commented one American on board. "The security officer who came from London made this emphatic statement that we couldn't stay at the Europa for security reasons and it was interesting to watch the guys from the RUC basically tell him he had no idea what he was talking about." The Americans figured London was using security as a smoke-screen for political objections. Word of the dispute filtered back to RUC Assistant Chief Constable Tim Lewis, senior linkman with the US Secret Service. Lewis' boss, Sir Hugh Annesley, had issued him with firm instructions that the force's advice was to be based strictly on security considerations. "I was aware of discussions about what was or wasn't politically appropriate but thankfully it wasn't an area we had to become involved in," said Lewis. Added a force colleague: "The White House wanted him to stay at the Europa. There was opposition to it but that opposition stopped when we said we can make it work." The advance party visited Hillsborough Castle, residence of former Northern Ireland Governors, which Washington saw as being the NIO's preferred alternative to the Europa, particularly as Sir Patrick Mayhew would stay there too, thus underscoring the fact Clinton was in the Province as a guest of the British. The castle would have been a possibility for a political reception as well. But the Americans were adamant the President wouldn't be staying there. Said one: "The British wanted him to stay at Hillsborough. They put on a very nice show. It's a beautiful residence, but it sent out exactly the wrong message of what we were coming to do." The British, however, claimed they took the Americans to the castle only so they could eliminate it from their plans. "We showed them Hillsborough if only to rule it out because we knew that it was never going to be big enough," said a source. "We knew that the Americans were not going to come. They told us pretty plainly they didn't want to be seen in the pocket of the Secretary of State because that wouldn't have reflected terribly well back in Boston."
Relations between the Americans and British on the site survey were cordial enough. It was an opportunity for each side to sound one another out without giving too much away. "This was not the stage where people were going to get into really difficult discussions about who was really in charge," said a Washington official. "You don't leave your host feeling as if they have been improperly treated because you have to depend on them for a lot of the basic infrastructure of what you are going to be doing." The British saw the exercise as an opportunity to work their own location suggestions in Belfast and Derry onto the US list. Those from Washington went to numerous sites only out of courtesy, knowing straight away they were outside the realms of possibility. "It was apparent there were some differences," said one of the Americans involved. "The British Government preferred the more formal state visit model and the American Government wanted to be more free-wheeling, more kind of daring. We weren't quite on the same page." The site survey ended with a half-hour airport wrap-up meeting between Reefe and Dalton, the respective delegation leaders, as the Americans prepared to move onto Dublin to inspect possible locations there. After it ended Martha Pope, a former Sergeant-at-Arms in the Senate, paid Reefe the compliment of saying that, as someone accustomed to listening to speeches from politicians, she'd never seen someone talk so much for so long but say so little. Pope took part in the site survey as she'd already had some appreciation of the sensitivities of Northern Ireland through her work with Mitchell when he was economic envoy. "I leaned on Martha a tremendous amount," said Naphin.
Soderberg was in Belfast for two days in the week after the site survey, accompanied by Ambassador Crowe, to gauge local feeling about the Clinton visit and the state of the peace process generally, which was then stuck fast in the decommissioning quagmire. Crowe, who considered some in Washington to be out of touch with political realities in Northern Ireland, labelled the consultative exercise "operation educating Nancy".
A DUP trio of deputy leader Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley Jr. the leader's son, warned the Clinton aide it might seek to sabotage the trip if it leaned too heavily in the direction of Nationalists. "We took a very firm line with her," said Paisley Jr. "We told her to expect protests on the streets, expect us to lead a very active campaign. We didn't threaten her. We just told her the reality of what was going to happen." The party was poised to print and distribute hundreds of leaflets-cum-posters, including one showing Gerry Adams alongside Timothy McVeigh, the man who planted a bomb which killed 168 people at a federal building in Oklahoma in April 1995, above the banner headline: "Clinton - is there any difference between these men?" They would also have issued a rallying call to supporters to converge on Belfast City Hall, where it was planned Clinton would switch on Christmas tree lights, and wave Ulster and Union Jack flags throughout the festivities. Said Robinson: "I think if we wanted a demonstration to happen it would've happened. There would have been a greater danger of that had he gone for his original itinerary which was all Nationalist." Robinson, MP for east Belfast, forcefully argued for the need for balance and advocated an event in his almost exclusively Protestant constituency. "Some of the proposals being put forward for the visit were frankly ludicrous," recalled Robinson, who was full of praise for Crowe. "He had a feel for what the President was walking into. I got the distinct impression he was quite happy at the points we were making. I'm not saying he was pro-Unionist but he certainly had an understanding that was more balanced than any of the other Americans.''
Leader Ian Paisley raised the spectre of Clinton visit protests by party members, like the Lord Mayor of Belfast Eric Smyth, during meetings with Administration officials on a visit to Washington at the end of October 1995 and claimed it brought results. "Clinton was fed with Boston propaganda about Ian Paisley being a reprobate and then he realised he had to make peace with him because he wanted the Lord Mayor to accept him as a guest at his Christmas tree. He had to pull in his horns," said Paisley. A document, written by Americans planning the President's visit, cast the DUP as the "potential thorn" and advised "conferring closely" with it to establish what would and wouldn't be satisfactory to Paisley. "This way, if we still decide to do something that won't satisfy them we will know about it well in advance and the decision will be a fully informed one," it said. In a clear need to be more inclusive, the White House afforded Paisley and Robinson talks with Vice president Al Gore. "I'm a Presbyterian," he was reported to have told them. They presented him with a six-page document which condemned the Clinton Administration's role in Northern Ireland and urged it to be more even-handed. One top White House official remarked: "I was amazed. Paisley was charming, delightful and told little anecdotes. Not the sort of firebrand you read about in the press." Paisley and Robinson came out from the White House and said that for three years the Administration had sought to sideline the DUP but now it needed to listen for fear of the President's trip being tarnished by demonstrations, or at least the threat of them.
Ulster Unionist supremo David Trimble was in the White House at the start of November for a meeting with Gore. Clinton dropped in on the hour-long talks. Trimble had had to fight to ensure he got to the President through forceful lobbying of Stephens, Crowe and the British Government. "We had a bit of a tussle," he said. It all stemmed from an undertaking given to his predecessor, James Molyneaux, that the next time a UUP leader was in Washington he'd meet Clinton. But Molyneaux had stepped down on his seventy-fifth birthday that August and his replacement, Trimble, had first of all been offered discussions with Lake, maybe Gore. The Upper Bann MP said as much time during the Clinton talks was spent mulling over the upcoming trip as on progress towards the twin-track agreement. "What we had been told before we went to the White House about the planning concerned us," said Trimble. "It seemed too closely orientated to west Belfast, with no balancing. We were trying to interest him in suburban towns - Carrickfergus, Lisburn - partly to get him onto our patch, areas represented by Ulster Unionists." The party's American specialist, Jeffrey Donaldson, who was with Trimble, made a supporting argument and recalled: "When we talked to the President there was no sense of, 'This is my ballgame. I'll decide.' They were completely open to the suggestions we had and they wanted to ensure the visit was even-handed."
Just before Trimble made his firstjourney to Washington as head of the Province's largest party, the American trip team were back in Northern Ireland on what was known as a pre-advance. Their number had swollen from about a dozen on the site survey to nearly 40 and included members of the US media who, to the astonishment of the NIO, were given a say in event planning, a reflection of their fourth estate status. Venues for Clinton's appearances had to be sizeable and accessible enough to accommodate the large travelling press pack. "There's an adage in doing this work," said one American, "If the press don't cover your event, your event didn't happen." Brady Williamson came on the pre-advance, which took place from 24-26 October, but the American delegation was again lead by Paige Reefe of Presidential Advance. David Watkins became his counterpart on the British side. "Watkins understood better than anyone where we were coming from and what we were going to get done, though he didn't necessarily agree with it. We parried and thrusted with each other," said one of the visitors. While the site survey was all about scouting places, the pre-advance dwelt on tightening up the Presi dent's schedule. Out went some events in Londonderry, for example, where planners had been too free and easy with the President's precious time. In between the site survey and pre-advance, Dohse and Naphin had been ordered to Belfast by Soderberg unannounced, where they linked up with Stephens to scrutinise locations with a view to working in some more political balance. Tony Lake summed up the planning process: "The people who did the logistics of the trip were working with the people who did the substance in order to make sure the logistics served the substance. I don't recall any arguments but it certainly did require, especially on Nancy Soderberg's part, constant and painstaking management to make sure that almost to the minute there was balance."
In part due to the secret trip and feedback to the site survey from Hall as well as Stephens, the US team was more attuned to local political sensitivities second time around. It readily accepted die need for greater balance, a subject that figured prominently at a get-to-know-you dinner attended by the British and US sides at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, during the pre-advance. Alongside Watkins, who like Reefe gave a short address in the course of the evening, was Chris MacCabe from the political section of the NIO. Said a British Government source: "We needed to establish beyond doubt in their minds that they weren't coming in here to do everything the way they wanted and nothing we wanted and the issue of balance needed to be nailed down." The NIO pushed for an event in east Belfast as a counter to going to the Mackie factory in west Belfast, something the Americans had given thought to in the four weeks since they were last in town. "We ended up acceding to this event in east Belfast because it took care of an agenda of theirs which they believed for their own purposes was important," said a US team member. A lot of the time was spent discussing whether the British or the Americans would host a reception in honour of Clinton in Belfast, a troublesome issue which went unresolved that night. "We agreed to disagree and greater minds would litigate it out," said an American. The British saw the dinner as critical in establishing a working relationship that, according to a Washington source, matured from initially being wary.
It was when the Americans returned home from the pre-advance that
the White House began to grasp the full potential of the Clinton
visit. "There was really a great deal of enthusiasm,"
reminisced Press Secretary Mike McCurry. "The excitement
about President Clinton coming became apparent to our advance
people. It was very clear there was a real hunger on the part
of the people to see a US President come and make a statement
about the importance of peace. Word got back we should see this
not only as an important moment for Bill Clinton but for the people
of Northern Ireland as well."
Seventy days after the triumph of the visit came despair. National Security Advisor Tony Lake was in his first floor office in the west wing of the White House when a call came from Belfast. It was 9 February, a day in the life of Irish policy every bit as memorable as the previous 30 November, but for all the wrong reasons.
Gerry Adams was on the line. "He sounded quite disturbed," Lake remembered of their brief conversation. The Sinn Fein President told him the 17-month IRA ceasefire was over. Official word came in a statement issued in Dublin. Publisher Niall O'Dowd, who like many other Irish-Americans had sweated for the truce, tried to raise Adams from New York. The line was busy. "I hoped some eejit had just got hold of the IRA's codeword," said O'Dowd.
One hour later, at 7.00pm GMT, Canary Wharf in London was rocked by an explosion. Two people were killed, millions of pounds worth of destruction caused and incalculable damage done to the peace process. The emotions at the epicentre of the superpower could not have contrasted more sharply with those that warmed the soul in Belfast and Deny but a fond memory ago. "We all felt sick," recalled Nancy Soderberg. "It was one of the lowest days in my life."
Blair Hall, one of the visit's key planners, had just arrived back in London from a holiday on the night of the bombing. The news came like a kick to the stomach. He, like others swept along by the events of 30 November, took it personally. Jim Lyons, a Clinton confidante who had shared in all his triumphs, was in Dublin for a board meeting of the International Fund for Ireland. He cancelled dinner, took a walk and cried. Across the city, Ireland's Foreign Minister Dick Spring spoke for them all: "It was hard to believe the ceasefire could break down after the endorsement of the peace process shown on the streets of Belfast."
When the feelings that clouded cool judgement lifted, the truth was that the writing had been on the wall for some time. Nonetheless, it shocked many in the White House when it became knowledge that the planning of Canary Wharf had been taking place in south Armagh at the time of the Clinton's visit. Prime Minister John Major's dismissal of the Mitchell Report on arms decommissioning and the calling of elections in Northern Ireland - one more hurdle to all-party talks - was but the final straw.
Clinton was annoyed at the ceasefire's collapse. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble saw him at the White House soon after. "Ho could not conceal his anger" said Trimble. "I was doing an introductory comment and he just burst in saying, 'They were damn fools, damn fools.' Oh he was angry." Adams found himself, once again, persona non grata. The White House was off limits to him on St Patrick's Day in 1996 and again in 1997.
The President's rage, however, didn't prompt the jettisoning of the peace process and emotional attachment was part of the reason. After his visit, Ireland had claimed him as one of their own. "The Irish have the same affinity for President Clinton that they did for my brother," Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith said. There were those in Washington who said that Clinton should disengage but, just like the first Adams visa, he choose not to heed them. "He didn't panic when a lot of his political strategists wanted him to forget Ireland," said Congressman Peter King. Like King, others on Capitol Hill kept faith with Adams, despite his being officially cold-shouldered. The view that the Sinn Fein President was committed to peace but having trouble bringing his entire movement with him found receptive ears at the White House.
While Clinton never diluted his denunciation of terrorist acts, it was clear he was in for the long haul. "He's like one of those pilots you see in the movies," said Lyons. "The plane begins to go wrong but he keeps trying everything until it lands on the ground." But his was not the job to create the conditions necessary for a restoration of the IRA ceasefire and he neither could or would claim any credit when it came on 19 July 1997.
The all-inclusive peace talks Clinton wanted finally got under way two months later. By then he found himself, in a strange way, the grand old man of the Northern Ireland peace process. Gone were John Major and John Bruton, replaced by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern respectively. "He has made a tremendous contribution to the peace process," Blair told the authors. "His visit to Belfast was a great long-term boost to peace efforts. I have no doubt the view the President expressed so clearly during his visit, that the men of violence were the past, was right then and will be fully vindicated in the future."
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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