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A BREAKTHROUGH IN BELFAST

Clinton Personally Pushed Pact

Diplomacy: Although agreement is reminiscent of Mideast peace accord, president was much more involved in this deal.

April 11, 1998|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For yet another time in his presidency, Bill Clinton stood Friday at the center of a major international peace agreement. Through the night Thursday and into the early hours Friday, he consulted, encouraged and advised key participants in the final phase of the marathon talks that led to the Northern Ireland peace accord.

"I made a lot of phone calls last night and up until this morning," a clearly pleased Clinton told reporters as he praised the accord.

His personal involvement evoked memories of the moment 4 1/2 years ago when Clinton brought together Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn for the handshake that sealed a historic Middle East agreement and sent hopes for peace in the region soaring.

The comparison is sobering.

Indeed, if there is any message for Northern Ireland amid the debris of efforts to put in place the Middle East peace process, it is that converting commitments made by centuries-old adversaries into reality is far harder and riskier than are the negotiations leading up to such agreements.

Because of this, the challenge now facing the Clinton White House is somehow to shield and support the new Northern Ireland pact in ways the administration has found impossible to manage in the Middle East.

Initially, at least, Clinton would appear to have more and better cards he can play to protect Friday's accord than he has ever had in the Middle East.

For example, he was far more deeply involved in the early stages of the search for peace in Northern Ireland than he was in the Middle East. Despite the riveting image of him standing between Rabin and Arafat, the new president had almost nothing to do with the peace talks, conducted secretly in Oslo, that led to the famous handshake.

In contrast, the United States, and Clinton personally, have been a part of the push for Northern Ireland peace since its inception four years ago. The president personally approved granting a controversial visa to Gerry Adams, a move that let the Sinn Fein leader visit the U.S., meet with Clinton and show mainly Roman Catholic hard-line Irish nationalists back home that political dialogue was a viable alternative to violence.

At the same time, Clinton maintained a sense of evenhandedness by reaching out early to Northern Ireland's internationally isolated Protestant leaders, who want to maintain the province's union with Britain.

All this bodes well for Clinton's future role.

Noted one diplomat in Washington: "What we have seen is a president who's proved he can set a good tone for the agreement. This process is all about getting people to work together, and, in that regard, he's already been a force."

Although Clinton dodged questions Friday about the substance of his telephone calls on behalf of the pact, sources close to the talks said his labors were crucial.

"He was in a position, particularly when they got to the end, to help them step back from the details and look at what they'd managed to get done and see it in that broader perspective," a White House official said.

Other sources outside the U.S. government said that Clinton provided critical reassurances to Adams and to David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party chief and leading Protestant negotiator.

"He told Adams: 'I'm staying with this. My engagement doesn't end now but will run through the end of my presidency,' " one official said. "Adams found that reassuring."

Ulster Unionist sources said Clinton also addressed last-minute Protestant worries in a predawn conversation with Trimble. Clinton is believed to have told the Protestant leader that he will press both sides to start turning in their weapons, a process that was supposed to run parallel to the talks but has not.

Unionists leaders have expressed concern that they will find it extremely difficult to generate support for any peace agreement that left the Irish Republican Army, by far the strongest guerrilla group in the province, still armed.

Analysts believe that the depth of Clinton's involvement is only one of several factors giving him greater credibility in the Northern Ireland peace process than he has ever had in the Middle East.

They note that, although the U.S. has traditionally been viewed as sympathetic mainly to the Irish nationalist cause, the recent development of contacts with unionists has generated an image of Washington as more objective and, therefore, more credible.

American economic aid to Northern Ireland--$19.6 million per year in the Clinton years--is minor compared with the billions of dollars that Washington provides Israel and its biggest Arab neighbor, Egypt.

Clinton on Friday seemed to rule out any big new Northern Ireland aid package to back the new agreement.

Still, with the province's economy stronger than it has been in years, government-encouraged U.S. private-sector investment directed into both Protestant- and Catholic-dominated depressed areas can provide tangible improvements, analysts believe.

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