Today’s Politics Show on BBC NI featured an interview by Jim Fitzpatrick of President Bill Clinton.
Speaking about his paternal grandfather, who was a working-class man who held no racial antipathies – a rare condition for such men in the American South in the 1950s – Clinton said that he had to learn about differences between blacks and white later in life.
He added, “Old divides give meaning to peoples’ lives, but are ultimately self-defeating.”
He first became interested in Northern Ireland politics while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He mentioned the election of Bernadette Devin as MP. Comparisons with the civil rights movement was less important to Clinton than his own (mixed) Irish-American background. He didn’t like the way the (riot) situation was being handled.
Clinton’s interest returned during his campaign for the 1992 presidential election. He cited the New York Irish-American crowd, and friends like Bruce Morrison, a Congressman in Connecticut.
Regarding granting Gerry Adams a visa to enter the US, Clinton said that it was “not free of risk”. While there was much opposition within the White House, including that of the Attorney General, Clinton said that he had support from the National Security Council as well as from some in Congress. He said that he made the decision on an instinct, that the opportunity was right, considering the economic prosperity of the Republic of Ireland, as well as the economic and political development of the European Union. He added that he thought it was an opportune time for paramilitary-associated political parties to see that the political strategy of terrorism was dead.
He said that Prime Ministers John Major and Albert Reynolds were important figures in developing the peace process, saying that Major “took a big bite out of the apple” with his acts.
Explaining why he placed so much emphasis on Northern Ireland as part of his foreign policy, Clinton said that as he saw it, one of the major goals of the US was to have a united, democratic and peaceful continent of Europe. Barriers to this were: (1) the Balkans issue; (2) disputes between Greece and Turkey; (3) the relationship between Europe and Russia; (4) the expansion of NATO; and (5) Northern Ireland.
Asked Clinton if he felt slighted about David Trimble leaving a speech that he was delivering, Clinton said “no”, and that he took no offence. “I’m not that kind of politician. [I believe that in] politics there’s not much room for being small.”
Regarding the future of Northern Ireland, he said [sic], “Let’s constitute the structures. Let’s have elections. Let’s keep having elections.” He added that some may be feeling “buyer’s remorse”, “but we won’t go back [to the way it was]”.
Commenting on how President George W Bush and his administration do not deem the Northern Ireland issue as important as it was under the Clinton administration, he believes that Bush thinks Northern Ireland has been solved. To the Bush administration, Northern Ireland has “come unstuck but not come apart”.
Clinton summarised by emphasising the positive impact he believes resoling the “Irish question” has for the rest of the international community. “It’s the right thing to do. [It’s part of the larger global trend towards increasing cooperation and integration.]”
Lastly, he replied to Fitzpatrick’s query about what he saw as his future role in regards to Northern Ireland, which is one of serving the rest of his time as a public servant. Clinton remarked on his daughter’s (Standford University undergraduate) thesis on the US role in the Northern Ireland peace process.