Remarks by Ambassador Anderson at the Irish America Hall of Fame
Introduction by Ambassador Anne Anderson of former President Bill Clinton
Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Irish America Hall of Fame Luncheon
New York City, 30 March 2016
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
It is probably the very definition of a redundant task to introduce the Honorable William Jefferson Clinton to an Irish or Irish American audience – because of course absolutely no introduction is required!
But I am truly honoured to be asked to say these few words. No recipient could be more worthy of the Lifetime Achievement award, and it is all the more resonant and meaningful for being conferred in this momentous year, as we commemorate the centenary of 1916.
I returned just yesterday from the commemoration ceremonies in Dublin over the Easter weekend: ceremonies that were moving and dignified, and appropriately reflected the pride of a nation. The themes of the commemoration – remember, reconcile, re-imagine – are ones that chime precisely with President Clinton’s own involvement on our island.
Indeed, a happy chord was struck on the first day of the visit home, last Thursday. I was accompanying a US Congressional delegation, and our calls included one on the newly elected Ceann Comhairle, or Speaker, of the Irish Parliament. As he greeted us in the entrance hall of Leinster House, the Speaker proudly pointed to a photograph on the wall – a photograph of President Clinton addressing the Oireachtas on 1 December 1995.
Today, we are honouring the former President’s central and catalytic role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. But, in a word so fraught with strife and instability, we are also recognising the qualities that are at the very heart of peace-making and peacebuilding. I would suggest three qualities in particular that defined Bill Clinton’s approach.
The first is leadership.
It was not at all obvious that a former Governor from Arkansas, on becoming President, would prioritise Northern Ireland. On arrival in the White House, there were so many other claims on his attention. And there were many who advised that Northern Ireland as a cause was hopeless, or thankless, or even - in the view of some – inappropriate. But the President grasped the potential, and was ready to take a calculated risk.
He had also made a campaign promise.
In the Irish language there is an ancient and honoured rallying cry: “Beart do réir ár briathar” – action in accordance with our word. Bill Clinton exemplified that, when he might very easily have found a rationale to do otherwise.
The second quality is engagement: hands on, up close and personal.
There were two mutually reinforcing elements at work here – the President’s passion, and his extraordinary grasp of nuance and detail. There were the public moments, hugely symbolic and meaningful, and the private moments of empathy and encouragement.
In those dark mid-winter days of 1995, we had the first visit by sitting American President to Northern Ireland. No one who witnessed those extraordinary scenes in Belfast and Derry will ever forget them. The symbolic switching on of the Christmas tree lights, the bonding with the huge crowds, communicating so urgently the belief in a better future.
And all the countless private moments, empathising with and comforting the victims, encouraging the actors from all sides, willing them on, cheering them on. Combining the power and prestige of the Oval Office with the personal warmth and persuasive skills of the man who held the office.
President Clinton gave us the great gift of George Mitchell as personal envoy but much more than that – he was always there at the end of a telephone line, never more so than during those final fateful 24 hours leading to the Good Friday Agreement, when he stayed up all night to help push things over the line.
And the third quality, persistence: sticking with it. Knowing that peacebuilding takes time and patience; that the spark, once kindled, has to be nurtured; that long after the media caravan moves on, lives have to be painfully rebuilt and hope and vision sustained.
Bill Clinton simply never let up. He visited our island three times while in office. In March 2014, almost 20 years on, he was back again in Northern Ireland, with John Hume on the Peace Bridge in Derry. Once again, entreating the politicians from all sides: finish the job, finish the job.
Throughout the years since leaving Presidential office, his door has always been open for counsel, encouragement and always his continued insistence: finish the job.
I mentioned a moment ago the visit to Dublin with the Congressional delegation this past weekend, and our encounter with the Speaker, the Ceann Comhairle, on the first day. My last engagement with the delegation was the State Reception in Dublin Castle on Sunday night. As we stood chatting in St. Patrick’s Hall in the State Apartments, a former Minister reminisced about the State Dinner held for President Clinton in that Hall in December ’95. She recalled one of the most moving moments of the evening when, following and echoing the President’s speech, an Irish tenor sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
That too is a promise kept. Twenty years later, we do indeed know that we have never walked alone.
And so, today we want to express our thanks to President Clinton, we want to recognise his work on our island as one of his proudest achievements, and in a world so desperately in need of peacemakers and peacebuilders, we want to recognise the qualities it takes, and which he has so compellingly demonstrated.
Please join me in welcoming to the podium the Honourable William Jefferson Clinton, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award.