Hillary and Bill Clinton are set to make a surprise pre-Christmas visit to Belfast. The date has not yet been announced but December 5 is likely for the visit by the US Secretary of State and the former President.
Mrs Clinton is believed to have accepted an invitation to attend the Organisation for European Security and Co-Operation in Dublin on December 6 and 7.
It is understood that she will meet her husband Bill, now a private citizen, in Belfast on December 5. The details of the schedule are still being finalised but it is believed the couple will carry out a number of engagements.
It would be impractical to do any business in Dublin because that is budget day.
A Belfast stopover will be seen as a major boost to US relations with the province, particularly if Barack Obama wins the Presidential election next week.
Mrs Clinton is part of his Democratic administration and is tipped by US pundits to succeed him as Democratic Presidential candidate in 2016.
Diplomatic sources stressed that the visit was dependent on international events but described it as “very likely” whoever won the election.
The new president does not take office until January 20 next year and Mrs Clinton is likely to remain as Secretary of State, the equivalent of Foreign Minister, until at least then.
The couple visited the province three times while Bill Clinton was President between 1993 and 2001. Every one of them produced a major feelgood factor here.
The first and best remembered visit was in 1995 when the Clintons turned on the Christmas lights in Belfast and the tree itself was presented by Vice President Al Gore from his Tennessee estate.
That was just a year after the IRA ceasefire and the Clintons carried out the ceremony from behind a bulletproof glass screen. He told record crowds that the US and Northern Ireland were now “partners for security, partners for prosperity, and most important, partners for peace”.
Earlier the Clintons had visited the Shankill and Falls Roads. On the Falls the President broke pro
tocol by stopping off at a local bakery where he met Gerry Adams and shook his hand.
Despite the boost this gave to Sinn Fein the IRA ceasefire broke down a couple of months later. President Clinton later used his leverage with Republicans to help have it restored. His subsequent visits were in 1998 and 2000.
In 1995 the Power Rangers had been billed to turn on Belfast’s Christmas lights but were cancelled at the last minute to make way for the Clintons.
This year another team of costumed heroes, the ZingZillas, are due to perform the honours but they are less likely to be upstaged. They will flip the switch on Novemeber 17 and diplomatic sources are ruling out a mid-November visit by Mrs Clinton.
For President Clinton Northern Ireland was seen as a major foreign policy success. It helped Bill secure the lion’s share of the Irish vote in the 1996 election and was also good for Hillary when she stood for the Senate.