Bill Clinton urges Irish to find way through ‘splintered electorate’

Northern Ireland would get ‘whacked’ by Brexit, former president tells Irish audience

Bill Clinton at an Irish-American event in New York City: He implored political opponents to find common ground in a speech that evoked the 1916 Proclamation of the Easter Rising. Photograph: Peter Foley

Bill Clinton at an Irish-American event in New York City: He implored political opponents to find common ground in a speech that evoked the 1916 Proclamation of the Easter Rising. Photograph: Peter Foley

 

Former US president Bill Clinton urged Americans to encourage Irish politicians to “find a way through a splintered electorate” to form a government and said he hoped Britain stayed in the European Union.

Speaking at an Irish-American event in New York City, Mr Clinton implored political opponents to find common ground in a speech that evoked the 1916 Proclamation of the Easter Rising.

Referring to the outcome of recent Irish general election, he said that the “splintered electorate” was “perfectly predictable in the time in which we live”, noting the political divisions across Europe.

He asked Americans at Irish America magazine’s “Hall of Fame” awards ceremony in Manhattan to remind the Irish people that “what made them great . . . was the way of coming together, of learning from what happened 100 years ago and for almost 300 years before that”.

“All across the world, wherever people are reaching across the lines of divide, good things are happening,” he said.

“Wherever people are striving for total conquest based on absolute purity and correctness, good things will not happen.”

Mr Clinton said that “if you’re Irish, yeah it’s okay to be concerned that you don’t have a government today but they’ll figure it out”.

He expressed concern about the effect of Britain’s exit from the EU if the country votes to end its membership in a referendum in June.

“It’s Northern Ireland that will really get whacked if Britain withdrew from the European Union,” he said.

“And I hope they don’t because it’s too easy to believe that the only solution to the problems in the world is to hunker down.”

Way forward

Mr Clinton said that it was “too easy to turn away but it’s better to find a way to go forward”.

The former president was honoured at the event for his role in being a catalyst for the peace process in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s.

After viewing one of the original copies of the Proclamation before the ceremony, Mr Clinton praised the objective of the 1916 rebels to create an Irish Republic for all people, regardless of religion or gender.

“The lessons of 1916 teach us a lot about what is happening all across the world in 2016,” he said.

Speaking about the shift to political extremes, Mr Clinton quoted William Butler Yeats’s “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” to warn about the dangers of parties not finding agreement.

“If the centre cannot hold, inclusive economics, inclusive societies and inclusive governments all fall to the politics of blame,” he said.

The Belfast Agreement showed how opponents could find “a way forward for inclusive prosperity, for inclusive politics”, he said.

“We can never let our hearts turn to stone,” he said, referring to another famous Yeats line, “and we can never let things fall apart so much that we cannot build a dynamic centre”.

He said he hoped that the Irish would, from lessons learned from 1916 and from 1995 on, be the “torchbearers of that message of hope”.

Other award recipients at the ceremony in the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan included Gen Martin Dempsey, the recently retired chairman of joint chiefs of staff, and astronaut Eileen Collins, the first female commander of the US Space Shuttle.