Bill Clinton predicts restoration of Stormont after meeting leaders
Former US president held separate meetings with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill in Belfast
Directly after being honoured by Dublin City University for his contribution to peace and reconciliation in Ireland, Mr Clinton flew to Belfast for what were billed as “private” meetings with former First Minister Ms Foster and Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill.
The meetings ostensibly were to mark plans to revamp the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh but Mr Clinton also discussed the recent setback to the negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein aimed at reinstating Stormont.
There was considerable optimism last week that the behind-the-scenes talks between the two parties would lead to a speedy restoration of the Northern Executive and Assembly. However that hope was punctured at the weekend when both the DUP and Sinn Fein made clear that outstanding differences, particularly over Sinn Fein calls for a free standing Irish language act, had not been fully resolved.
Mr Clinton made no comment to reporters after meeting Ms Foster at the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast but it is understood that he used his time with her and later with Mr Adams and Ms O’Neill to encourage the two leaders to get a deal over the line.
Mr Clinton appeared optimistic that the DUP and Sinn Fein ultimately would strike a deal. “I can’t bring myself to say former First Minister,” he said when talking about the DUP leader. And referring to Stormont he added, “We are going to get this going again.”
After his subsequent meeting with the Sinn Fein leaders Ms O’Neill said they had “a wide ranging discussion on a number of issues including the current difficulties facing the political process, efforts to restore the political institutions on the basis of rights and equality and the implications of Brexit”.
Mr Clinton said he was “incredibly honoured” that the Clinton centre is to be reactivated. Located beside the site of the 1987 IRA Remembrance Day bombing which claimed the lives of 12 people, the centre was opened by Mr Clinton in 2002 and was designed to be a conference and exhibition space.
It hasn’t been fully functioning for a number of years but now Dublin City University, the Ulster University and University of Massachusetts have come together in a joint initiative to “renew and enhance the peace-building vision” of the centre.
“Good citizenship in the 21st century requires us all to find ways to expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them’. So, I’m grateful that the centre will continue to be a place that supports and empowers students from all over the world with the tools they need to create better tomorrows,” said Mr Clinton.
Ms Foster welcomed the overhauling of the centre which is based in her constituency of Fermanagh South Tyrone. “This announcement to remodel and expand the work of the Clinton Centre is a significant boost to Enniskillen in particular and Northern Ireland in general,” she said.
“I am delighted to welcome president Bill Clinton to Northern Ireland. He is no stranger to us and we deeply appreciate the part he has played over many years in helping to ensure Northern Ireland has a peaceful and prosperous future,” said Ms Foster.
As part of the future plans for the centre, work by artist Colin Davidson will be exhibited there. His Silent Testimony exhibition of 18 portraits of people who suffered loss in the Troubles will be exhibited there for six months from next year to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. A portrait of Mr Clinton by the artist will be bequeathed to the centre from next year.
From the summer of next year, and among a range of plans, the centre will host students from the US, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland for a range of academic programmes focusing primarily on peace and conflict studies.