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Division casts shadow over freedom of Belfast for peacemakers Clinton and Mitchell

By Suzanne Breen

Former US President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell will receive the freedom of Belfast next month - but opposition to the move has been voiced by the Ulster Unionists and People Before Profit.

The SDLP proposal to honour both men on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was supported by the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance at a special council meeting yesterday.

But the UUP dismissed the move as "a gimmick" and "stunt politics", and said it would be more appropriate to laud "the local politicians who really delivered the peace - David Trimble and John Hume".

People Before Profit challenged President Clinton's image as "a man of peace" and said he was responsible for sanctions which "caused the deaths of thousands of children in Iraq".

A special meeting was called in City Hall yesterday so plans could be made to give the award to the two US politicians who are expected in Belfast for events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Agreement next month.

Council sources expressed disappointment that the decision to honour them hadn't received unanimous support.

They will be the 83rd and 84th recipients of the Freedom of the City of Belfast, following in the footsteps most recently of actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh, poet Michael Longley, blues legend Sir Van Morrison and Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters.

SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood said: "Senator George Mitchell and President Bill Clinton played hugely important and significant roles in delivering the peace accord.

"Senator George Mitchell was seen as the honest broker between all sides in the talks process. He won admiration from across the political divide in Northern Ireland for the careful, patient way he chaired the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. He steered the talks process through difficult and challenging time and at some considerable personal cost, away from home at a time of family bereavement and when his wife was pregnant."

Mr Attwood said President Clinton had "used flattery, persuasion, arm-twisting and midnight phone calls to encourage people over the line and break deadlocks".

DUP councillor Guy Spence said the former president had worked hard to help Northern Ireland from the late 1990s, and had "strong Ulster-Scots roots".

Alliance group leader Michael Long described the former president as "the most inspiring speaker I have ever heard" and said it was right that Belfast honoured "those who put so much effort" into the peace process.

UUP group leader David Browne said the two architects of the agreement were John Hume and David Trimble and it was wrong that those who "did the heavy lifting" were being ignored while two politicians from outside Northern Ireland were being honoured.

His party colleague Chris McGimpsey said those behind the motion had "mismanaged and made a dog's dinner of it".

He accused the SDLP of "playing stunt politics" to coincide with the US politicians' visit to Belfast next month. People Before Profit councillor Matt Collins said: "Bill Clinton's role in the peace process has been hugely exaggerated and I certainly don't support giving him the Freedom of Belfast. It would be very wrong to honour someone who through sanctions played a role in the death of thousands of children in Iraq."

Independent councillor Declan Boyle called for Mr Hume to be honoured as "the architect, engineer and builder" of the Good Friday Agreement.

However, a statement from the former SDLP leader's wife, Pat, was read out to councillors. Mrs Hume said she would like to thank those making the offer. "However, on this occasion, John will have to respectfully decline," she added.

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