Former US President Bill Clinton preached forgiveness and inclusion to a modest crowd in Guildhall Square this afternoon (Wednesday, March 5), compared with the huge throng he addressed at the same spot in November 1995.
“We had 25,000 people here,” said Mr Clinton of his post-ceasefire, pre-agreement visit. “It’s very intimidating speaking in this spot, if you’ve never done it before, in part because you have to speak while the cannon are facing you and you have a feeling that if you say the wrong thing, which was quite easy to do back then...
“All you had to do was open your mouth. But no cannons went off so we had a good night,” he joked.
Mr Clinton was officially in town to launch ‘Peacemaking In The Twenty-First Century’, a new book celebrating a series of lectures at Magee.
He also hooked up with old friends Pat and John Hume, the latter of which edited ‘Peacemaking.’
“I’d like to thank the organisers of this event for the opportunity John and Pat and I had to walk over your Peace Bridge, which is new from when I first came here. It’s very beautiful.”
The former most powerful man in the world took time out from plotting a Democrat victory in the US mid-terms in November and preaching peace around the world to urge political leaders here to complete the peace process.
“You’ve got to finish the job. There are still issues that have got to resolved, 19 years [it’s almost twenty] since the ceasefire and 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement.”
He said Northern Ireland was an exemplar for would-be peace processors from Myanmar, to Colombia to the Basque country.
“The other day the Basque separatists in Spain after decades of violence announced that they were willing to put their arms beyond use,” he noted.
“They even used the language used in Ireland for what they were going to do with their arms.”
Of all these die-hard former conflict zones, he said: “They’ve drawn inspiration from you.”
Mr Clinton also invoked the remarkable forgiving spirit of the late Nelson Mandela, recalling a conversation during, which the difficulties of peace-making were brought home to him.
The late South African icon told Mr Clinton he was suffering severe criticism over the formation of this Government.
“And I said: ‘The Afrikaners? The Dutch South Africans?’ And he said: ‘Oh no, no, my people. They are so mad at me,’” recalled Mr Clinton.
He also related a story about an amazingly forgiving Tutsi woman who had suffered horrendously during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The woman’s husband and seven of her ten children had been massacred in the midst of the atrocities in East Africa.
But Mr Clinton explained how she had eventually recovered to set up a basket making enterprise in Kigali and was one day approached by a young Hutu.
“’I can’t live with myself anymore, I murdered one of your children, and I know, you have a son or a daughter, send for one of them to come here and kill me. It would be justice,’” is what the man apparently said.
“Do you know what she said?” asked Mr Clinton of the Londonderry crowd. “’What good will that do? I forgive. God bless you.’”
With a nod to our own seemingly intractable differences, he added: “If people can do that we can resolve the flags, the parades the other issues.”
He former President recalled another conversation with Mr Mandela, who once described to him his philosophical attitude, upon his release: “’I said to myself, If you hate, them, if you get in that car, you will still be in prison.’ He said: ‘I want to be free. And so I forgave.’”
It didn’t run entirely smoothly, however. The former President was subject to a silent protest during, which a small number of protestors showed admirable stamina in holding placards criticising the United States’ foreign policy over their heads for about half-an-hour.
A non-silent protestor shouted ‘warmonger’ to which Mr Clinton replied calmly: “The Iraqi problem is that they don’t have an inclusive government either.”
This drew a ripple of applause from a large section of the audience.
Mr Clinton, of course, wasn’t in office at the time of either of the Iraq wars, although his wife and likely 2016 Presidential candidate voted for the 2002 assault against Saddam Hussein and was involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya.
He was, however, collectively responsible for the deaths of over 500 Serb civilians during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in just a few months in 1998.
That’s more people than were killed by either the UVF or the UDA during the entire course of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.