By Niamh Marley
Clinton at QUB. Photo credit: Belfast Telegraph
Nestled in the heart of the Derry countryside, lies a picture perfect guest house in the village of Ardmore. With its ivy-adorned gable wall, vintage water wheel and first class dining, The Beech Hill in Co Londonderry is loved the world over. But one guest in particular expressed a certain fondness for it and for this patch of the world – none other than former President of the United States, Bill Clinton. The Arkansas native’s partiality to holidaying in Northern Ireland is just one example of the connection that remains between the six counties and President Clinton, despite him leaving office in 2001. He is tied to Northern Ireland closely, and it is no surprise that his return is being welcomed warmly.
Thirteen years ago, the President received an honorary degree from Queen’s University Belfast and will return in March of this year to formally open the Queen’s Leadership Institute, now known as the William J. Clinton Institute at Riddel Hall. The Institute aims to encourage and nurture future business-minds and foster knowledge of the local economy and business community. Professor Peter Gregson was still in his post as Vice-Chancellor when the visit was announced in 2013, and he spoke of the “great debt of thanks” owed to President Clinton by the people of Northern Ireland, naturally alluding to the latter’s role in the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
President Clinton first visited Northern Ireland in 1995 after taking the decision to assign Senator George Mitchell to the role of a third party negotiator during the embryonic peace talks. The Richard Haass of his time, Senator Mitchell’s appointment proved to be a key and pivotal move, thus the christening of the Institute in honour of Clinton is seen as an expression of heartfelt gratitude. The selection of Mitchell ensured White House involvement in the attempt to find a settlement, and calls from the Oval Office to the key players were said to be regular throughout the talks at the time.
Despite the fact that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential campaign for the Presidency in 2016 is gathering ferocious pace on social media and in the American press, the eyes of Northern Ireland will be firmly fixed on her husband come March 5th. Thirteen years on and two Presidents later, Bill Clinton is still held in high-esteem by the people of Northern Ireland. His efforts in the Peace Process are etched into the minds of many, and he is alleged to have personally called it his “greatest foreign policy agreement” according to a former aide. It is not his impeachment or “scandals” that the people of Northern Ireland will be thinking about on his arrival. It will be the hand shake with Gerry Adams on the Falls Road, the economic investment that he encouraged, and his commitment to communicating with those within our society who he saw as wanting to move on without violence.
His down-to-earth manner, commitment to the future of Northern Ireland and, of course, switching on the Christmas lights in Belfast in 1995 all form part of an incredible legacy, and Clinton is sure to be welcomed back with open arms in March.