Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: Major coup that will certainly boost Queen's profile

 

Hilary Clinton First lady USA in Belfast having tea with Joyce McCartans 1995
Hilary Clinton First lady USA in Belfast having tea with Joyce McCartans 1995
In Omagh in 1998

By Lindy McDowell

That Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady and former Democratic candidate for the US Presidency herself, has been appointed chancellor of Queen's University in Belfast is an undoubted coup for that institution and a massive boost to its prestige.

Should we be surprised, though? Not really.

The Clintons - both Hillary (72) and her husband Bill, the 42nd US White House incumbent - have long shown a genuine interest in Northern Ireland and the peace process.

Mrs Clinton says she regards her new appointment as "a great privilege". The feeling is surely mutual.

Although her role is largely ceremonial - she is the university's 11th chancellor and, gratifyingly for a feminist like herself, its first female one - she will be an impressive ambassador for Queen's. Whatever you think of the woman, she is a worker.

And although she has been accused in the past of exaggerating her role in the peace process, she was undeniably genuine in her own efforts and in her support of the work of others, including her husband Bill and US special envoy George Mitchell.

The Clintons first came to Northern Ireland back in November 1995. They were accompanied by their then-15-year-old daughter Chelsea.

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While her husband met politicians and people from both sides of the community during visits to the Falls and the Shankill, Hillary dropped in for a cup of tea with a group of Protestant and Catholic women involved in cross-community work.

The setting was the Lamplighter cafe on the Ormeau Road. As a parting gift, she was presented with the teapot by local activist Joyce McCartan. While the tea party was undoubtedly a symbolic event, some critics felt it took the biscuit when Mrs Clinton later cited it in talking up, to CNN, how she "helped bring peace to Northern Ireland".

That said, she has been a stalwart supporter of attempts to reach agreement here and has (as she has noted herself) visited more times than her husband. She was here in 1998, uncomfortably for her at the height of the scandal over Monica Lewinsky, the intern with whom her husband had had a fling.

Feminist Hillary was criticised for standing by her man during that and other allegations of infidelity.

She and Bill together visited Omagh in 1998 in the most tragic of circumstances, to attend the memorial service for the victims of the Real IRA bombing which had killed 29 people and injured hundreds more only a few weeks before.

The Clintons returned in 2004 to visit Enniskillen and the Clinton Peace Centre in the town.

But over the years Hillary has made a number of trips alone.

During one visit, in her role as US Secretary of State, she noted: "It's fair to say that this is a place that keeps drawing me back."

It is, therefore, likely that the Yale-educated Mrs Clinton is as delighted to be recognised by Queen's as they are to have her (she was previously awarded an honorary degree by the university). Intriguingly, speaking in November last year she did not rule out the possibility of once again having a tilt at even higher office.

Having lost out in the last US presidential campaign to Donald Trump - her "deplorables" swipe at his voter base did her no favours - she admitted that she was under "enormous pressure" to run again. Given the Democratic Party's disparate list of wannabes already seeking the nomination, you can understand why her supporters might see her candidacy as a more viable option.

For the next five years, however, she will be pencilling into her diary those key Queen's events - mainly graduation ceremonies - she will be attending in her new role as chancellor.

Whatever her future role, if any, in US politics, we'll be seeing a whole lot more of Mrs Clinton over the next few years here in Northern Ireland.

As Stephen Prenter, the chair of Queen's Senate, puts it: "As an internationally recognised leader, (she) will be an incredible advocate for Queen's and an inspirational role model for the Queen's community."

No overstatement there.

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