There’s been plenty of talk lately about how Irish-American Joe Biden as U.S. president might influence the impact of Brexit on both sides of the Irish border. Twenty-five years ago, another U.S. president loomed large in Irish affairs and helped set the stage for the Good Friday peace agreement.
Bill Clinton became the first American leader to set foot in Northern Ireland, Nov. 30, 1995, followed by stops in the Republic of Ireland. He quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney long before Biden:
I could not say it better than your Nobel Prize winning poet, Seamus Heaney, has said: We are living in a moment when hope and history rhyme. In Dublin, if there is peace in Northern Ireland, it is your victory, too. And I ask all of you to think about the next steps we must take.1
It took until April 1998 to reach the peace agreement, approved the following month by voter referendums on both sides of the border. The accord became effective in December 1999.
In Derry, Clinton shared the stage with John Hume, who would became co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble for their work on the Good Friday Agreement. Hume died in August. “I’ll never forget our night in Derry in 1995, with the town square and blocks around full of hopeful faces,” Clinton said in his official statement this summer.
At Mackie’s, a west Belfast textile factory, nine-year-old Catherine Hamill “stole the show” with her introduction of Clinton, Brian Rohan recalled in a 1996 story, recently republished in Irish America magazine.
“My first daddy died in the Troubles,” Hamill said. “It was the saddest day of my life. Now it is nice and peaceful. I like having peace and quiet for a change instead of people shooting and killing. My Christmas wish is that peace and love will last in Ireland forever.”
John D. Feerick also notes the “moving” introduction by the Catholic girl, joined by a Protestant boy, in his memoir, That Further Shore, published this year. The former Fordham Law School dean joined the U.S. delegation.
Clinton’s “speech of hope and promise for Northern Ireland challenged both communities to embrace peace and and open the door for greater economic development in the North and the employment that would follow,” Feerick writes in a five-page passage about the Ireland trip.2
Two weeks after Clinton turned on the Christmas tree lights in Belfast, Britain’s Daily Mail, Virgin Airways, and the Fitzpatrick Hotel chain flew Hamill and her family to America to be among Clinton’s invited guests at the tree-lighting ceremony at the White House. It was truly a season when hope and history rhymed.