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How Caroline followed heroine Hillary Clinton into politics - from awestruck face in crowd at Belfast rally to White House

By Stephanie Bell

Published 20/09/2016

Caroline McNeill
Caroline McNeill
Caroline McNeill aged of 11
Caroline McNeill meeting Hillary Clinton during her placement at the White House
Brian Kennedy
The Clintons turn on the Christmas lights in Belfast in 1995

The SDLP aide, who once won a placement as a 'Clintern' in Washington, is planning a tribute night to the US presidential front runner having idolised her since she visited Northern Ireland on that special night in 1995.

Belfast is set to give Hillary Clinton a very special pre-election boost ... thanks to who has to be her biggest fan this side of the Atlantic: high-flying barrister and political advisor Caroline McNeill.

A huge party, which will be attended by a host of local dignitaries - with a special message from the Democratic presidential nominee herself - is currently consuming every minute of Caroline's spare time as she works to ensure that '21 Years of Friendship - Belfast's Tribute to Hillary Clinton' is a night to remember.

By her own admission, Caroline (32) has been obsessed with Hillary since the age of 11, when she first saw her standing with her husband, President Bill Clinton, on stage at Belfast City Hall 21 years ago.

Every detail of that freezing November night in 1995, as she sat on her dad's shoulders furiously waving her plastic US flag among a crowd of thousands, is for ever etched in her memory.

Such was the impact on the awestruck child that the historic moment in local history proved to be life-defining for her.

Consumed by Hillary's career ever since, she even managed to secure a place as an intern in the Clinton office in Washington, where she finally got to meet her role model.

Her own career has also been influenced by her great admiration for the presidential candidate and despite gaining a reputation as a skilful barrister in London, she has given up law to pursue her passion for politics, working as a special advisor to SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell.

Organising her tribute night, which will be staged in the Europa Hotel on October 20, seems a natural outlet for Caroline's passion for her heroine.

She says: "I just wanted to do something tangible for her campaign and it is also a celebration of the fact that it is 21 years since that visit in 1995.

"When I am not working, organising the tribute night is taking up all my free time, but I am so passionate about her that it feels very natural to be working late hours to do this. It is shaping up to be a very special night.

"Hillary inspired a lot of people here and we have people from different political parties attending as well as local people who she worked with, such as May Blood and Naomi Long. It is also open to anyone whose life has been touched by Hillary's work."

And she adds: "As it is being held a couple of days before the election, Hillary obviously can't be there herself, but we hope to have her there via videolink with a special message, so she will be in the room, too."

Caroline has been following Hillary's race for the White House as closely as she has followed her throughout her career.

As shocked as anyone by Hillary's recent near-collapse at the 9/11 memorial service in New York, she says she is confident that rumours that she might have to pull out of the race are completely unfounded.

She says: "Pneumonia is not an insignificant illness, but nowadays it can be got over with antibiotics and a couple of days' rest and, obviously, that is what Hillary did and she is back on the campaign trail.

"She has been in the public eye for 25 years and is not afraid of hard work and her schedule is absolutely gruelling and would challenge any one of us and she recognised she needed a couple of days off.

"I've seen her up close and personal and she has exceptional attention to detail and incredible intellect and the idea that she is not fit for the job is just ludicrous."

Throughout the race for the White House, Republican rival Donald Trump has relentlessly launched scathing personal attacks on Mrs Clinton, describing her as "unstable", "unbalanced" a "liar" and even calling her "robot Clinton".

Caroline sees Trump as an anti-political campaigner, who is using his attacks on Hillary to tap into people's fears.

She says: "We are living in such strange times politically when people like Donald Trump, who are anti-establishment, are trying to tap into the fears of people. It is unthinkable to me that he could be president of the US - a democracy which is looked up to across the world.

"He is trying to paint a picture of Hillary that the facts don't bear out. These kinds of cliches don't wash in terms of her commitment to America and her dedication to her life in politics and her hopes to engender change and inspire women, which she has done in Belfast and across the world.

"Cruel jibes coming from someone with Donald Trump's reputation are not going to put her back too much."

While Mrs Clinton can't be in Belfast personally, due to her hectic schedule, Jim Lyons, a former special advisor on Northern Ireland affairs for President Bill Clinton and an advisor on Hillary's campaign, will represent her. Caroline is also thrilled that local singing star Brian Kennedy (below), who is currently going through treatment for cancer, has also agreed to sing at the tribute night.

For Caroline, who is from Belfast, every detail of the first time she set eyes on Hillary and Bill Clinton during that historic Christmas visit in 1995 is for ever fixed in her memory.

Like many thousands of others from all across Ireland, she went along with her parents and three brothers to see the US President and his wife switch on the Belfast Christmas lights.

In what she describes as a "magical" experience, she recalls: "I couldn't see very much because of the crowds as we were way at the back standing near McDonald's. I asked my dad to lift me onto his shoulders so that I could see and I remember Hillary and Bill standing behind bulletproof glass in front of the City Hall.

"I remember waving my wee plastic American flag, which I still have in my bedroom at my parents' home and which I will have with me at the tribute night. I remember Bill Clinton's southern drawl and just how magical it all was.

"I remember when I was studying at Trinity College Dublin for my finals, I was reading Hillary's autobiography for the fourth time."

While studying for her degree, she applied for the chance to be part of a special Washington/Ireland programme offering 30 young people the opportunity to work as interns in Washington. Naturally, she applied for the Clinton office.

Much to her delight, she succeeded in securing a placement and finally got the chance to meet the woman who had been her role model for so long - although she hadn't expected to reduce this hardened politician to tears.

"As 'Clinterns', most of us had no access to her at all and I met her by pure chance one day and got to tell her my story.

"I told her about seeing her when I was 11 and being inspired by her and she started to cry and said that she couldn't believe that a girl from Belfast was in her office.

"The next day, I came into the packed intern office on Capitol Hill, still on a high from my meeting with Hillary, when an aide came into the office and said, 'Senator Clinton wants to see the Irish girl'. All heads turned to me and the next thing I knew I was being brought down a corridor in the Russell Building and her aide pushed the door open and Hillary said: 'Here she is now. Caroline, this is your new Executive'. And she was sitting with the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness."

Caroline returned to Dublin to finish her degree, went on to study law and moved to London, where she worked with a top legal firm as a barrister.

Always determined to follow in her role model's footsteps, she left law in 2011 to work with the three SDLP MPs as a researcher and writer at Westminster. Last year, she became special advisor to the party's leader, Dr McDonnell.

"I enjoy the courtroom, but no one who knows me will be surprised that I have gone into politics. Growing up, all my friends would have constantly asked, 'What's the crack with you and politics', because I was always watching and reading about it and lapping it all up.

"I love being around political events and when you look back and see the changes that have happened in our society, I think we should be proud that we've done well and that has been with the help of people like the Clintons."

Caroline is familiar with the many scandals and controversies which at times clouded the Clinton administration. But she has nothing but admiration for the way in which Hillary has survived the many storms.

"You've just got to look at Bill Clinton's record. He had a second term in the White House. The proof is in the pudding. Despite the allegations and scandals, he left office with a high approval rating," she says.

"What he did domestically put the American economy back on track and what he did in the Middle East and Northern Ireland gave him a record he can look back on with pride. Very few politicians can do that.

"Hillary had to weather the storms, too. You really have to believe in something to continue to put yourself through it and she obviously does. She inspires people to do better and women to be whatever they want to be."

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