Anne McHardy: Working for peace as US first lady

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BELFAST - The exact role played by Hillary Clinton in the peace process in Northern Ireland will always be debated.

Whether she took an actual part in the main talks a decade ago, as her husband did, is doubtful, but what is without doubt is that from the beginning she played an important part in bringing Northern Ireland's women together to build political pressure from them for peace. She is widely respected north and south of the Irish border for doing that.

She also had a role as first lady in providing the setting for meetings _ often between disparate parties to the negotiations _ on visits to the US. She has continued this throughout her time as a senator from New York. Clearly the size of the Irish American vote in New York has influenced her but she is also seen in Northern Ireland as having a real, personal interest, as does her husband.

She made her first visit at Christmas in 1995, a year after the crucial first IRA ceasefire and while negotiations were underway between John Hume, the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein.

When Bill Clinton became President he worked with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, but also made visits to talk to politicians in Northern Ireland and became involved in daily telephone discussions during the most crucial negotiations.

Hillary Clinton was regularly at her husband's side when he visited Belfast and made several visits on her own, both while he was President and then when she was running for the Senate in New York. In her first term as a senator she visited the Irish Republic and in her second she visited Belfast, meeting politicians from all sides. She has had briefings as a senator from the British and the Irish governments. But she has also regularly hosted gatherings of politicians and community activists visiting the US.

Hume said: "She visited Northern Ireland, met with very many people and gave very decisive support to the peace process. In private she made countless calls and contacts, speaking to leaders and opinion makers on all sides, urging them to keep moving forward."

Notable praise came from Lady May Blood, a sturdy community leader who has been active for 50 years in the Shankill, one of the toughest Protestant areas in inner city Belfast.

Blood, a woman who never minces her words, put a statement on to Clinton's campaign webside saying that Clinton "sent the message that the work and influence that grassroots women were undertaking within their communities was just as important as anything else that was taking place. I witnessed her [Clinton] building new confidence in women at the grassroots level and their stature grew within Northern Ireland as a consequence. All of a sudden they were being taken more seriously. The message we were also told by Hillary Clinton was that this work needed a political focus."

Another tough-minded campaigner for women's rights, Inez McCormack, the first woman to be president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, is also strong in her praise. "We believe it is important for others to know the pivotal role Mrs Clinton played in helping us in Northern Ireland at critical junctures in the peace process. She supported us over many years and we will always be grateful to her. Hillary Clinton took risks for peace in asking me and others to bring women and communities from both traditions to affirm their capacity to work for common purpose.

"She used her immense influence to give women like me space to develop this work and validated it every step of the way. This approach is now taken for granted but it wasn't then. She told us that if we take risks for peace, she would stay with us on that journey. In my experience, it took hard work, attention to detail and a commitment of time and energy which she delivered steadily and which were needed over the last decade."

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