Belfast City Hall Tree Lighting Ceremony
7:00 pm Tree Lighting Ceremony Outside Belfast City Hall
“When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch. Well my mama told me, there’ll be days like this.” Van Morrison, “Days Like This” (1995)
Belfast City Hall had been a magnet for protests and bombings since the beginning of the “Troubles.” For years, armed British soldiers patrolled its streets, and most shop entrances had metal detectors and security baggage checks.
Since the 1994 IRA and Loyalist ceasefire, most of these security measures had been withdrawn, making City Hall an attractive and symbolic location to stage the President’s televised event for the trip: the ceremonial lighting of a Christmas tree to mark the start of the holiday season.
For this event, Belfast’s American sister city, Nashville, Tennessee, donated a 49-foot white pine tree. Flown across the Atlantic by the U.S. Air Force, hundreds gathered downtown to watch as the tree was carefully trimmed with thousands of colorful lights. By dusk, some 80,000 people were present to cheer Belfast-born singer Van Morrison’s passionate delivery of “Days Like This,” a song which, after this performance, became an anthem for the peace process. Musicians Curtis Stigers and Brian Kennedy also contributed to the crowd’s enthusiasm for peace.
After the musicians, the Clintons took their places on the stage to sustained applause. The First Lady spoke first and gave a moving speech which emphasized the hopes for peace expressed by school children who had written to the White House, reflecting the President’s Mackie Plant remarks.
To chants of “We Want Bill,” the President rose and, accompanied by the Lord Mayor of Belfast and two local school children, strode over to an oversized light switch. With the whole crowd loudly counting down “three, two, one,” President Clinton flipped on the dramatic Christmas lights to waves of cheers. The moment was broadcast around the world, providing a powerful statement that diplomacy was making visible progress on the streets of Northern Ireland.
President Clinton’s parting words were largely improvised and clearly heartfelt. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he encouraged the citizens of Belfast. Then after more applause and cheers from a crowd who were reluctant to leave the square, the President and the First Lady departed for one last closed-door reception with Northern Ireland’s political leaders at Queen’s University.
Perhaps the most important attendee at this reception was the Rev. Ian Paisley, former leader of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party. As President Clinton later related about this meeting with Paisley, “I didn’t get a word in edgewise for 20 minutes, but I didn’t care.” The DUP would oppose the Good Friday Agreement, but Paisley developed a good working relationship with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness when the pair later served as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
At 8:30 p.m. the President retired to the Europa Hotel, historically the target of dozens of IRA bombings. He and the First Lady had just concluded more than twelve hours of continuous campaigning on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland. The next morning, they would have to rise early, board Air Force One en route for Dublin, and serve as public diplomats-in-chief all over again.