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Last updated: December 7, 2012 7:10 pm
Two decades after her husband made forging peace in Northern Ireland a political priority in the US, Hillary Clinton on Friday called for an end to the recent upsurge in violence on her farewell visit to Belfast as US secretary of state.
“The violence is a reminder that though much progress has been made, the hard work of reconciliation and fostering mutual understanding must continue,” said Mrs Clinton, who is set to stand down as America’s top diplomat in the near future.
Following talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders at Stormont, Mrs Clinton warned that the recent economic progress enjoyed in the province would be impeded if violence returned.
The visit by Mrs Clinton’s comes amid heightened sectarian tensions and an upsurge in attacks by dissident Republicans opposed to the peace process.
Just hours before the secretary of state arrived in the province, police arrested four men in Londonderry when they discovered a bomb being transported in their car. In a separate incident, police made safe a letter bomb in the village of Clough in County Down.
These discoveries by police follow a week of sporadic rioting in parts of the province sparked by Belfast city councillors’ decision on Monday to stop flying the Union flag at City Hall every day.
Loyalists, who support maintaining the link with Britain, have reacted furiously to the councillors’ decision to only fly the flag 15 days a year. This week Loyalist mobs attacked the homes and offices of Alliance party members, who they blame for teaming up with nationalist parties to restrict the flying of the flag.
Naomi Long, an Alliance Party MP, said on Friday she had received a death threat and had been warned by Loyalists to leave her home.
Henry Patterson, professor of politics at Ulster university, said: “Divisions remain as profound as ever when it comes to symbols, issues of identity and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.
“This recent outbreak of violence shows how finely balanced the elite political agreement in Northern Ireland remains and how shockwaves from below can have an impact”.
Mrs Clinton, who is a friend of Ms Long, said she was “very distressed” that the Alliance MP had been subjected to threats and called for these “remnants of the past” to be unequivocally condemned.
The secretary of state and her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, have displayed a significant commitment to bringing peace to Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. During his 1992 election campaign, Mr Clinton promised to grant a visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, to travel to the US, a significant shift in US policy. He followed through with this despite strong opposition from within the US state department and from the UK government.
The Clintons visited Northern Ireland for the first time in 1995, a year after the IRA ceasefire, and have been regular visitors to the province since. As secretary of state, Mrs Clinton has worked to bolster Northern Ireland’s new political institutions, delivering a speech to its assembly in 2009.
“They [the Clintons] started talking about forging peace in Northern Ireland when it was not a mainstream idea,” said Kieran McLoughlin, president of the Worldwide Ireland Funds, a philanthropic body that supports peace building projects in Ireland.
At a lunch in Belfast on Friday, Mr McLoughlin presented a lifetime achievement award to Mrs Clinton in honour of her work supporting peace in Northern Ireland.
Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s first minister, praised Mrs Clinton for sticking by Northern Ireland over a long period. “You are one person who has consistently been there to help us, and not just in terms of helping us until we got an agreement,” he said. “You recognised as few others did that the process of getting peace goes beyond getting an agreement itself.”
PUSH FOR PEACE
Apr 1992 During the US election campaign Bill Clinton promises to give a visa to enable Gerry Adams travel to the US, putting Northern Ireland on his agenda.
Sep 1993 IRA observe a seven-day ceasefire to coincide with a fact-finding mission by prominent Irish-Americans and friends of Clinton to the province.
Jan 1994 Mr Adams granted a US visa despite opposition from US state department in a substantial policy shift that angers Westminster.
Nov 1995 The Clintons visit Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin to celebrate the peace process.
Jul 1997 IRA announce new ceasefire and George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy to N Ireland, chairs all party talks that eventually lead to the Good Friday peace agreement in April 1998. Mr Clinton makes several phone calls to party leaders during the last night of talks to persuade them to agree.
Oct 2009 Hillary Clinton visits N Ireland as US secretary of state, holds talks with political leaders and addresses the Northern Ireland assembly.
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