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In Northern Ireland, Clinton’s Visit a Bittersweet Memory

November 30, 1996

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EDITOR’S NOTE: President Clinton’s visit on Nov. 30, 1995 was one of the happiest days in Northern Ireland’s 75-year history. A year later, the people who met the president reflect on what now seems to have been a false dawn.

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By SHAWN POGATCHNIK

Associated Press Writer

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ ``President Clinton shops here,″ says the fading sign in the window of Violet’s Fruit Shop.

The framed White House photo behind Violet Clarke’s cash register captures the moment on Nov. 30, 1995 when Clinton stopped at her Shankill Road shop to buy apples, oranges and flowers. She still has the two pound coins Clinton insisted on paying.

``I’d love to have that day over again. It seems so long ago now,″ Clarke said, putting the coins back in her purse.

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``Here in Northern Ireland, you are making a miracle,″ Clinton said an hour later, and pro-British Protestants and rebellious Catholics alike wanted to believe him.

The Irish Republican Army had stopped its decades-old campaign against British rule on Sept. 1, 1994. Within six weeks the gunmen on the Protestant side followed suit.

But by late 1995, talks between the British government and the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party hadn’t made any progress. Britain refused to convene wider negotiations unless the IRA started disarming, a demand that Sinn Fein considered surrender.

Clinton’s visit to the Shankill, Belfast’s poorest and most militant Protestant district, was a little coup in a trip universally hailed for its careful balance of interests. Most Protestants distrusted a U.S. president who had welcomed Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at the White House.

``Shankill people wouldn’t have been too pleased about him coming over. Seen him as, well, a meddling Yank,″ Clarke said. ``But then he came here, and he talked good sense, for both sides. He got my vote.″

Clinton’s major speech was at Mackie International Ltd., a manufacturer of linen looms that straddles the west Belfast ``peace line″ of walls and fences separating Catholics and Protestants.

``It was a case of Mackie’d risen from the ashes of west Belfast, and Protestants and Catholics were working together here _ a natural for the president,″ said Pat Dougan, the firm’s Catholic chairman.

At Mackie’s Clinton gave a message to the gunmen: ``You are the past. Your day is over.″

In an obvious reference to Sinn Fein, he added that ``those who renounce violence, and who do take their own risks for peace ... are entitled to be full participants in the democratic process.″

``Never!″ shouted Cedric Wilson, a Protestant hard-liner.

Dougan recalls one of his employees telling Wilson, ``Go back to Jurassic Park where you came from!″

But in May, Wilson won enough votes in a special election to get a seat in the peace talks.

Dougan sold half his stock in Mackie when it was riding high after Clinton’s visit. It has since lost more than half its value, a combination of disappointing profits and sagging optimism.

Dougan wishes Clinton would return. ``It would be brilliant, because he could tell the politicians here they’d done nothing.″

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From Mackie’s, Clinton headed down the Falls Road, where Adams was waiting at a corner bakery. The hope was that the photo of Clinton’s first public handshake with Adams would bolster him and encourage the IRA to be patient.

``People on the streets had the sense that the peace process had been collapsing, in fairly desperate straits, and we were all on the verge of something bad,″ said Adams’ press aide, Richard McAuley, who snapped the picture. ``Bill seemed a little like the 7th Cavalry coming to the rescue.″

Adams and McAuley made a final visit to the White House on Feb. 1. Eight days later, the IRA ended its 17-month truce with a one-ton truck bomb in east London that killed two newspaper vendors.

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In east Belfast, Clinton met Protestant entrepreneurs. Sonja Gorman of Holly Handmade’s Workshop gave the president a clock, and Franklin Hunter of Renaissance Ironcrafts presented an iron candleholder.

``I called that work `Light and Understanding,′ a shamrock on a circle with four legs,″ recalled Hunter, 59.

Gorman’s shop closed down shortly after the visit, and Hunter says his has struggled. The government-built enterprise park where they both worked was ransacked in July by Protestant hooligans.

``I thought we’d settle our differences and come together quickly, and gallop rather than tortoise along the road. But not to be,″ said Hunter. ``So we’ll see light and understanding, but maybe after I’m dead.″

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The Clinton entourage then flew across Northern Ireland for a rapturous welcome in the predominantly Catholic city of Londonderry.

``We certainly haven’t seen a day like that since,″ said John Kerr, a Catholic who was then the city’s mayor.

Londonderry’s Catholic militants battled police for four nights in July, and one man died in the city’s worst riots since the 1970s. Last week, the army defused a car bomb outside Londonderry’s police headquarters.

``That’s one of the most horrendous things that’s ever happened,″ Kerr said. ``We thought we were past car bombs.″

On Thursday, an army bomb-disposal robot blew up a farm trailer left by a roadside near Armagh, 45 miles southwest of Belfast. Army officials said the trailer contained about half-ton of explosives.

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