Peace and Public Diplomacy
“What he did . . . was give a bit of hope and vision for Northern Ireland. In a sense he reached out to the public across the heads of the politicians. The crowd was mostly young. They were a generation that wanted to believe there was hope for the future and he gave them that.” Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under Prime Minister Blair
Good Friday Agreement
In 1997, the election of a new British government under Prime Minister Tony Blair, assisted by his Secretary of State Mo Mowlam, gave the peace talks heightened momentum. Both leaders were, in the President’s words, optimistic that in Northern Ireland, “the people are further along than their leaders,” in their support for the peace process.
Less than a year later, the historic Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, and subsequently ratified by voters in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The accord established rules for power-sharing between the Protestant and Catholic communities in the governing of Northern Ireland as well as establishing mechanisms for conflict resolution involving both the British and Irish governments. The Good Friday Agreement is generally regarded as the end of the “Troubles.”
"It was something of a mission all the way through for Bill Clinton during those days. I phoned him virtually at every point of the day and night; he immediately got what the politics was. I don't know how many calls he made to the various leaders but you know they were crucial really.” Tony Blair
The Omagh Bombing
While a majority of the Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries laid down their weapons in 1998, a few splinter groups, both Catholic and Protestant, attempted to undermine the fragile peace with further acts of terrorism.
The most deadly of these attacks was carried out on August 15, 1998 in the town of Omagh. A group calling itself the “Real IRA” exploded a car bomb that killed 29 people and injured over 220 in a busy shopping area. It was the single deadliest terrorist attack of the entire history of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. It also immediately threatened to halt the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Claire Gallagher was a 15 year-old aspiring pianist when the Omagh bombing left her permanently blind. After meeting her in Northern Ireland, President Clinton invited Miss Gallagher to perform at the 1999 White House St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Irish songwriter and producer Phil Coulter accompanied Gallagher on the piano for the event.
After lengthy phone calls with Prime Minister Blair, President Clinton and the First Lady returned to Northern Ireland. Accompanied by Blair, the First Couple met with the victims and families of the Omagh bombing. Afterward, the President delivered an impassioned keynote address at a peace rally in the nearby ecclesiastical town of Armagh. Framed by Protestant and Catholic cathedrals dedicated to Saint Patrick, the President exhorted the mostly young audience of thousands to keep faith in the “miracle” of the Good Friday Agreement. But the President was also realistic:
“The question is not if the peace will be challenged; you know it will. The question is, how will you respond when it is challenged? You don't have to look too far. The bomb that tore at the heart of Omagh was a blatant attack on all of Northern Ireland's people who support peace . . . But it backfired. Out of the unimaginably horrible agony of Omagh, the people said, "It is high time somebody told these people that we are through with hate, through with war, through with destruction. It will not work anymore.”
Although the bombing seriously tested the confidence of Protestants and Catholics alike in the new political disposition, the Good Friday Agreement held firm. The President and First Lady’s emergency mission to Northern Ireland in 1998 was credited with helping calm the crisis.
Before leaving office, President Clinton made one last trip in 2000 to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It was not a victory lap, but one final opportunity to personally shore up popular support for the Good Friday Agreement on both sides of the border. Nowhere was this purpose more apparent than the President’s speech in Dundalk, a town in the northeast of Ireland where the Omagh bombers had planned their violent campaign to undermine the peace process.
Appearing with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea, the President encouraged those present to “stand up for peace today, tomorrow, and the rest of your lives.”
Looking back over his eight years in office, the President concluded:
“Every Saint Patrick's Day, the Taoiseach comes to the United States, and we have a ceremony in the White House. We sing Irish songs, tell Irish stories—everything we say is strictly true, of course. [Laughter] In my very first Saint Patrick's Day occasion as President, I said I would be a friend of Ireland not just on Saint Patrick's Day but every day. I have tried to be as good as my word. And every effort has been an honor and a gift.” Remarks to the community in Dundalk, Ireland December 12, 2000.