Former presidents Adams and Clinton reflect on 25 years of peace
by Madison POULTER
3 April 2023
Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and former US President Bill Clinton shared their reflections on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) at an event organised by Friends of Sinn Féin USA, in collaboration with the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH), the James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition, and the Brehon Law Society of New York. Occurring in New York City, the special event gathered the Irish-American diaspora and highlighted the symbiotic relationship between the Irish stateside and in Ireland. From the US granting Gerry Adams a temporary visa in 1994, to President Bill Clinton being the first sitting President to visit Northern Ireland, to the US facilitating the agreement, Adams and Clinton acknowledged the role the US played in the peace process and its role in maintaining the peace.
Before either Adams or Clinton took to the stage, video remarks by Senator George Mitchell were played to attendees, which set the stage for the remainder of the evening. In his speech, Mitchell took the audience back to the 1990s, reminding us all that agreement was not inevitable, but rather a long, hard process. As he underscored, it was “700 days of failure; 1 day of success”.
Mitchell made clear that while the one day of success was a compromise and imperfect, it has provided the old and new generations today and tomorrow freedom from violence. The B/GFA, Mitchell underscored, represents the hope of a better tomorrow because, at its heart, the peace brokered by the agreement is not a given, but an ongoing process.
Adams greeted the audience in Irish and thanked the various Irish-American affinity groups in attendance for their role in making the issue of Northern Ireland an American issue — a feat that led to the involvement of US President Clinton and later Senator Mitchell.
While Adams acknowledged — and celebrated — the cessation of violence and new opportunities provided by the B/GFA, he also detailed its failings — the primary focuses being the current dissolution of Stormont and the impending passage of the Legacy and Reconciliation bill at Westminster. Both, he argued, prevent true peace for “peace requires justice”, and that a democratically elected government held hostage by one party and a failure to help victims is not justice.
Adams called on everyone to not just “reflect on the horror” of the Troubles, but also to recognize the North’s unique position. He reminded attendees that “very few countries get the chance” to start over, but Northern Ireland has had that opportunity and must continue its journey. For Adams, starting over is reunifying north and south. Because of the agreement, Adams argued that “unity is now a possibility” and perhaps the ultimate path towards establishing a long-lasting peace. He was quick to explain that unification does not mean erasure: “The Unionists are our neighbours; we want them to be our friends.” Adams added that for him, a true unification of Ireland involves the Unionists, as this is their home.
President Clinton took the stage and before delving into the agreement, he pleaded with the Northern Ireland politicians to “get on with the business that the people voted on” because it was essential to the peace process and maintaining the promises established in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
While he reminisced about the agreement and the controversy of granting Adams a temporary US travel visa in 1994, he made sure to draw attention to the people of Northern Ireland and the role they played — and continue to play — in the peace process: “It was the people that made this happen. Politicians don’t operate in a vacuum.”
Clinton also warned of the dangers of identity and performance politics, not just in the US and in Northern Ireland, but also in Bosnia, where relations are unstable. He explained that “making people mad is easier than making progress”, which is what these forms of politics allow. Rather than dividing ourselves and creating conflicts based on our differences, Clinton reminded the audience that we should be coming together with the realisation that our differences make us stronger as a whole — similar to Adam’s call for friendship across divides.
As Clinton wrapped up his remarks, he noted that his time in Northern Ireland and his role in the peace process remains his most cherished accomplishments. And it wasn’t just Clinton that shared this sentiment; Mitchell and Adams also spoke to the honour and privilege of creating an environment where people could come together.
As the night drew to a close, a theme emerged: we all have a role to play in upholding the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. There can be no return to violence. Each speaker reminded the audience that each year during the Troubles, at least 200 hundred people died — nearly the size of the audience. Which left everyone questioning, which family member or friend in Northern Ireland, would not be here today, if not for the agreement?