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30 November  
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1995: Clinton kindles hope in Northern Ireland
The people of Northern Ireland have given a rapturous welcome to President Bill Clinton, the first serving US president to visit their country.

At the end of an emotional day that saw Bill and Hillary Clinton visit communities on both sides of the sectarian divide, the president lit Belfast's Christmas lights from behind a bulletproof screen.

Standing in front of a giant Christmas Tree shipped over from Belfast's twin city, Nashville, Tennessee he told the thousands of Clinton fans that America and Northern Ireland were "partners for security, partners for prosperity, and most important, partners for peace".

The president and the first lady had spent the day mobbed by ecstatic crowds both on the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic stronghold of the Falls Road.

Then after a short helicopter ride to Londonderry, Northern Ireland's predominantly nationalist second city, tens of thousands waving the American flag, the Stars and Stripes, turned out in the bitter cold to greet the couple, who were accompanied by SDLP leader John Hume.

My first daddy died in the Troubles. It was the saddest day of my life
Nine-year-old Catherine Hamill
But it was a nine-year-old girl that provided the most poignant moment of the day just hours after Mr and Mrs Clinton arrived in Northern Ireland.

Catherine Hamill was one of two children - one Protestant and one Catholic - chosen to read a message to Mr Clinton before his address to workers at the non-sectarian Mackies Metal Works in West Belfast.

She recalled the time her father, Patrick, had been shot dead by the Ulster Freedom Fighters in 1987.

She told an audience of 500 guests: "My first daddy died in the Troubles. It was the saddest day of my life. I still think of him.

"Now it's nice and peaceful. I like having peace and quiet for a change instead of people shooting and killing. My Christmas wish is that peace and love will last in Ireland for ever."

Clearly moved, the president made his speech urging both sides in Northern Ireland to maintain the 15-month-old ceasefire through continued dialogue.

Unionist politicians who believe he is biased towards Catholics will have been pleased to hear him condemning "punishment beatings".

On their way from Aldergrove airport Bill and Hillary Clinton had stopped the motorcade to for what seemed to be an impromptu bit of shopping at Violet Clarke's grocery shop in the Protestant Shankill Road.

Later, in the Catholic Falls Road, the couple "happened" to meet Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams when they popped out of their limousine to visit McErlean's bakery.

Swamped by local wellwishers, the world's press failed to capture the public hand-shake between the US president and the leader of an organisation that many believe is the political wing of the IRA. It was a passerby who snapped the moment that was then broadcast around the world.

The president met Mr Adams again for a 20-minute meeting in Belfast tonight. He is said to have been encouraged by his talk with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, but less so with the Rev Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionists.

He had urged all three to use a "twin-track" process to talk through their differences.

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Watch/Listen
President Clinton shakes hands with Gerry Adams
The moment the president shook hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams

President Clinton: "The promise of peace is in the air"



In Context
The president's visit to Northern Ireland was regarded as a great success with politicians of both sides praising his even-handed and sensitive approach.

Only two months later hopes for a lasting peace were shattered when the IRA broke its ceasefire by bombing London's Docklands on 10 February 1996.

The IRA announced a new ceasefire in July 1997 but negotiations and sporadic violence continued until the Good Friday peace agreement was signed in May 1998.

The problems of decommissioning persisted despite the IRA's more relaxed stance over time which resulted in the opening up of some of its arms dumps to international inspectors.

In July 2005 the IRA declared an end to its armed struggle and two months later the decommissioning body announced the IRA had destroyed all its weapons.

President Clinton was re-elected to office a year after his Ireland visit. His presidency ended in 2001.

Stories From 30 Nov


 
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