Bill Clinton visits Northern Ireland with plan for economic recovery
Former US President Bill Clinton visited Londonderry yesterday and outlined his strategy to lift Northern Ireland out of its economic woes
While the 64-year-old statesman acknowledged the financial situation in the region was not good, he said he would far rather wrestle with those problems than the bloodshed and violence of the Troubles.
Delivering a keynote address at the University of Ulster in Londonderry, Mr Clinton pointed to a number of sectors that he believed could drive the region's economic recovery, including fish farming, arts and crafts and tourism.
He also stressed the importance of moving toward sustainable energy sources and attracting more foreign investors to set up roots in the area.
Mr Clinton has been a regular in Northern Ireland since he was greeted by tens of thousands of well-wishers when he first visited as president at the height of the peace process in 1995.
"I realise that to many people it is not as emotionally satisfying to discuss this as to talk about the peace in 1995," he said on his sixth trip to the region.
"This is what the peace is about - about giving the people the chance to live responsible normal lives.
"It was a really nice ride for a long time then, just like everybody's life, there are bumps in the road. This is also part of living a peaceful life, facing the tough times, facing the crisis and facing it together."
Mr Clinton's speech at the university's Magee campus comes ahead of a planned US-Northern Ireland economic conference in Washington next month hosted by his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The event will bring 24 major American companies together to hear about the opportunities available to them in the north of Ireland.
US economic envoy to the region Declan Kelly, who is involved in organising the upcoming conference, joined Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in greeting the two-term president.
Mr Clinton jetted in on an overnight flight from the US and started his day with a private meeting with long-time friend and former SDLP leader John Hume and his wife Pat.
Upon arriving at the campus, the former president said he was pleased the crowd waiting for him was modest compared to the thousands who welcomed him in the 1990s, explaining that it meant peace had been secured.
"This crisis is not good," he told an audience of 200 students, business leaders and politicians in the university's Great Hall.
"It's never good to see people suffer but I'd a lot rather come here after 15 years and see people doing their jobs and only a handful of people waving at me than come back to a screaming throng the second time of 35,000 people who are looking for someone to ride to the rescue because the shooting is still going on.
"This is a happy day for me, for all your troubles, and you can get out of them - if you will know, think and act."
Noting the difficulties small and medium sized businesses have securing capital from the banks, Mr Clinton also suggested the possibility of obtaining micro-loans from supportive non-governmental bodies overseas.
"There are a lot of non-governmental international groups that really care about what happens in Northern Ireland, they really want you to make it," he said.
"They want every day to be able to hold you up as a shining light to all these places that are still fighting.
"You'd be amazed how many people around the world would come here and help if you just ask. They have no idea that you even have any problems - you know, it's amazing how we all get out of the news if we aren't causing trouble."
Mr Clinton, who will travel on to Dublin for the second day of his 48-hour visit to the island, also reflected on his experience in the peace process.
"All of you I have been privileged to know for the last 15 years or more know that working on the Irish peace process was one of the two or three great honours of my life," he said.
"I thank all of you for proving a thesis possible. Whenever people say we can't do it in the Middle East, we can't do it somewhere, we just draw Northern Ireland to them."
Successive US administrations have been proactive in trying to encourage stateside business to branch out into Northern Ireland.
Hillary Clinton's initiative in the State Department comes two years after President George W Bush helped organise another US-NI Investment conference in Belfast.
Since then film makers HBO and Universal, and the New York Stock Exchange are among the notable American companies to invest in the region.
Mr Robinson said many international figures had put their weight behind the Northern Ireland peace process in the past, but what set Mr Clinton apart was his sustained support.
"They say success has many mothers and we have had a lot of people who have come here to celebrate the success of our process, however what distinguishes President Clinton is that he has sustained his interest in Northern Ireland beyond the time when the agreements were reached," said the Democratic Unionist leader.
"And he recognised I think more than many others did that it isn't simply good enough to get political agreements that get you past the stumbling blocks that have held us down in conflict and division but also that it is necessary to build your society to see economic prosperity and he has played a full role in that."
Mr McGuinness said both Mr and Mrs Clinton had an important role in securing future US investment.
The Sinn Fein MP said the conference in Washington would provide an unprecedented opportunity to highlight the potential of the region to US businesses.
"All the information that we are getting from Declan Kelly the US Economic Envoy clearly suggests that we can expect more investment in the time ahead," he said.
"That's why this particular investment event that we are going to at the State Department is so important because it is so focused and because it also has inherently within it the ability of companies who have had a very good experience in the north of Ireland to go and speak to others who have not yet invested and tell them the good news that awaits them if they are prepared to come here and invest in our new situation."
Mr McGuinness also stressed that the ongoing threat from dissident republican groups would not destabilise the region.
"We are facing up to huge challenges and the media are sometimes fixated by some of these tiny unrepresentative armed groups that are out there," he said.
"They actually don't represent the biggest challenge to us because we are united and we intend to stay united. The biggest challenge to us in the time ahead is the economic challenge, that's the biggest challenge and President Clinton is prepared to assist us in that."
Tomorrow Mr Clinton will visit the Clinton Institute for American studies at University College Dublin.