A new era beckons but Clinton will be missed


It was another remarkable day in President Clinton's political and personal relationship with Ireland. Both Mr Ahern and President Clinton acknowledged an era was ending and another beginning. President Clinton responded to a question about his future role in Ireland by saying he would do anything he could to help, but that policy would be up to a new president. Mr Ahern concentrated on hard economics in his speech, implicitly recognising that in the absence of President Clinton's unique personal engagement, the future Ireland/US relationship may be dominated by business rather than emotional ties.

The Government decided weeks ago to use this visit to project Ireland's economic success story to an American audience. Tentative plans were discussed to have the President visit one of the high-tech US multinational operations in the State, before the Guinness Storehouse was settled on. The brewer's new hospitality venue is largely a shrine to one of Dublin's oldest products, but some clever scriptwriting work refocused the event as a tribute to the modern and burgeoning technology sector. This home of traditional industry was to become the centre of a digital business park, Mr Ahern said.

Mr Ahern told the audience - including US business people and a large number of US journalists - that Ireland is the place to be if you are a US technology multinational. The message was the same in Dublin and Dundalk: "Ireland has changed and changed very fast. We have a new economy and modern society."

He listed growth statistics and pointed to social partnership. He mentioned Dell, Gateway, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Intel, all of whom have substantial operations in Ireland. "Ireland has captured up to 10 per cent of all US Foreign Direct Investment into the EU in recent years, and up to 40 per cent of greenfield investment in electronics," he said.

Mr Ahern also acknowledged the end of an extraordinary period of US engagement in Irish affairs. He praised Mr Clinton's recognition "that the world is now one place" and the way he "helped shape and define America's responsibility in the world of today." Although he did not say so, there was an implicit recognition that this global view may not be shared by a President George W Bush, who apart from trips across the Texas border into Mexico, has only travelled abroad on three occasions in his life.

Earlier yesterday morning, the Republic's female ministers, deputies and senators got to meet Hillary Clinton - the incoming Senator rather than the outgoing First Lady. Her speech to the invited gathering at the US ambassador's residence concentrated on the difficulties she said faced many women in elected roles. She announced a convention of women parliamentarians from throughout these islands, with further details to come in Belfast today.

President Clinton discussed international investment in Ireland with the Taoiseach, but inevitably, the peace process dominated their talks in Government Buildings yesterday morning. Today Mr Clinton has a final round of face-to-face talks with the Northern party leaders he has got to know so well, before holding what are seen as very important talks with Mr Blair.

Questioned by reporters at Government Buildings, he referred to a query regularly put: Why has he devoted so much time to Ireland? He listed a few possible explanations including some sentimental and historical reasons. He joked that it might have something to do with the 40 million Irish/American voters in the US. He concluded: "It just seemed the right thing to do."

Then he repeated his regular comment, guaranteed to make the general Irish public feel good about themselves. The progress made in the Irish peace process had had a major impact on peace processes in other countries, he maintained. "The Irish have proved that you can do this."

Mr Ahern spoke of how President Clinton had brought the authority of his office and his personal skills of negotiation and persuasion to the process. "You leave a legacy as a peacemaker and we'll never forget it in this country," he said.

And was that a tear the President wiped from his eye? Just as the Taoiseach spoke this line, Mr Clinton's right eye appeared to become watery and he rubbed, then wiped, at it with his hand.

This is President Clinton, the world's greatest political media performer, so we can't be sure. But it would have been an appropriate reaction. Mr Ahern's speech in the Guinness Storehouse was pitched at the future. But it also marked the end of eight extraordinary years in the relationship between Ireland and America, made possible by the personal commitment of a remarkable politician.