Belfast Telegraph

Bill Clinton: If Northern Ireland parties can't agree the danger is return to hell

Ex-US President pleads for Agreement to be honoured

By Kirsty Blake Knox

Former US President Bill Clinton has warned that unless the parties in Northern Ireland resolve their differences they risk languishing in purgatory or returning to hell.

Last night, he delivered the keynote address to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at the George Moore Auditorium in University College Dublin's O'Brien Centre for Science.

The milestone of the Agreement's signing comes amid the collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government and concerns that Brexit could see the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The turmoil at Stormont has led some to question the sustainability of the Good Friday Agreement.

President Clinton warned of the sclerotic and corrosive impact inertia can have on a people.

He made three appeals, to avoid undermining the work of the Good Friday Agreement and democracy being eroded.

"So my first plea is this thing has lasted, don't let it go," he told the crowd.

"One of three things is going to happen in the North.

"The whole thing will fall apart and you will go back into the hell that now people have forgotten from the Troubles.

"Or, two, you can stay in purgatory, where you got denied dreams and broken hopes and you'll just rock along, caught on a sea of lost chances.

"If you do that, slowly you will begin to lose a democracy in the North.

"Or three, everybody can rear back, settle down and make a new beginning.

"Whatever compromises have to be made to minimise the damage of Brexit, to keep the markets as open as possible, and share the Government.

"It is so easy to underestimate the fragility of the situation you have come to take for granted…"

He added that the key to moving forward was compromise.

He said: "You have to be willing to give. Compromise has to become a good thing, not a dirty word.

"And voters have to stop punishing people who make those compromises.

"And start rewarding them."

He said that the most important thing "is that the peace is held and nobody has questioned democracy".

"There is a limit imposed by constant paralysis because even if the economy stays static, the politics don't," he added.

"That is the challenge that every one of us faces today who cares about this.

"There is simply a limit to how long people can go on.

"It is about the people who live there and their kids and grandkids."

Mr Clinton continued: "There is a limit to the elasticity of inertia, of paralysis.

"So my position on this is pretty certain, I basically believe that you should celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, not for what happened but for what can happen."

He said that when society is given no sign of the prospect of mobility and moving forward, extremism prevails.

"The only thing that will be calamitous is if you consigned yourself to a purgatory of paralysis or go back to hell instead of moving forward," he told the crowd.

President Clinton considers Northern Ireland's peace process his greatest foreign policy achievement and said it broke "like thunder across the world".

He said: "The Irish peace was born out of weariness of children dying and of lost chances, the further you get away from that the easier it is to take the absence of bad for granted and to live in this purgatory where we are now. It's a big mistake."

He also spoke of the value and importance of compromise and not creating a society based on 'Us vs Them'.

"Inclusive decisions are always better than homogeneous ones or lone genius," he said.

He recalled staying up to 2.30am on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement and speaking to Gerry Adams, Ian Paisley, John Hume, George Mitchell, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, and David Trimble.

He said that the situation in Northern Ireland reminds him that "there are no final victories or defeats".

He concluded: "In his Nobel Prize speech Seamus Heaney also said of WB Yeats that his intent was to clear a space in the mind and the world for the miraculous.

"Twenty years ago tomorrow, 17 hours late, everybody impatient, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous - you should fill it."

Mr Clinton visits Belfast today to receive the freedom of the city alongside his former special envoy to Northern Ireland, George Mitchell.

Belfast Telegraph

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