When President Bill Clinton visited Belfast in 1995--the first
sitting president to visit Northern Ireland--he told a group of
Protestant and Catholic factory workers that those who use violence
for political purposes were part of the past, that their day was
over. Ten weeks later, an Irish Republican Army bomb exploded in
London, killing two and ending an 18-month IRA ceasefire.
Since then, although the Northern Irish peace process has made
significant progress--the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998
and overwhelmingly endorsed in a simultaneous referendum held in
both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic--it has been beset
by periodic crises that have threatened to bring it down.
Clinton's third trip to Ireland in December--he has only been to
Nebraska once during
his presidency--was designed to move the peace process forward one
more time, and to help solidify his foreign policy legacy. His choice
of Dundalk as the venue for his major public appearance in the Irish
Republic on December 12 was rich in symbolism: A few miles south of
the Northern Irish border, Dundalk is a base for the "Real IRA," an
IRA splinter group that opposes the peace process.
In December, Clinton spoke
in Dundalk, Ireland,
known as a base for the Real IRA.
The following day Clinton moved on to Belfast, where he met with
leaders of the pro-peace agreement parties in an attempt to break
a dangerous impasse in the functioning of the political institutions
established as part of the Good Friday agreement. At a public gathering
in downtown Belfast, he proposed a possible way forward, beginning
with dramatically reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC),
the country's Protestant police force, scaling down British military
operations and decommissioning IRA weapons.
The current impasse was predictable. While the Good Friday agreement
established a complex power-sharing structure--all major decisions
take place through a process of "parallel consent" from each political
community--the implementation of specific social and political reforms