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Bill Clinton on sleepless nights in 1998, Bertie trying to keep him up till dawn and Northern Ireland's similarities with Black Panther

Bill Clinton shared his memories of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, 20 years ago today.

Former US President Bill Clinton during his speech to the University College Dublin last night.
Former US President Bill Clinton during his speech to the University College Dublin last night.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE NIGHT BEFORE the Good Friday Agreement was signed former US President Bill Clinton said he didn’t get to bed until 2.30am as he was up making last-minute phone calls.

Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair were all on his call list.

The deadline to get a deal over the line was Holy Thursday – and that deadline had passed.

Speaking at a packed out UCD event yesterday, which included guests such as businessman (and close friend to the former president) Denis O’Brien, former Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, and Irish hotelier John Fitzpatrick, Clinton said the former US Senator George Mitchell – who had been appointed to chair the Belfast talks – woke him up again at 5am urging him to get back on the phone.

“Damn it George, I’ve been up all night,” Clinton told Mitchell.

“You were the one that gave me this part-time job. You swore it was a part-time job. We may as well make the best of it,” replied the senator.

In the end, the landmark 35-page deal which brought about an end to the violence of the Troubles was agreed. Today marks the 20th anniversary of its signing.

“And it was not free,” Clinton told the crowd last night. “These deals require sacrifice and compromise. It’s never easy and it’s not free.”

10th anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Left) and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Sacrifices

He said many made sacrifices had been made, not least the people of Northern Ireland, who he said had grown weary of children being killed on the streets and weary of “deprivation bourne of a dog-eat-dog world”.

Politicians took a leap too, he said. Many knew it would be unpopular with voters. He referenced the decline of the UUP and the SDLP in the wake of the agreement.

“David Trimble was not a dummy and John Hume certainly wasn’t. They knew they were putting their political parties at risk, and they did it.”

He also paid tribute to former UK Prime Minister John Major who he said put the issue on the agenda, and risked his narrow parliamentary majority in the early 1990s “to start this”.

HONOURS Major/Trimble Former British Prime Minister John Major (L) talks to David Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Oftentimes it is the people that stick their neck out that don’t get the credit they deserve,” he told the packed-out auditorium.

Just six weeks after agreement was signed off, a referendum was held in both the North and the Republic. Catholic voters in the North passed it by over 90% – but Clinton said it was notable that the Protestant community also voted in favour of the agreement.

“It was going to change everything,” said Clinton.

He said the unionists signed up to the accord as they knew that, in years to come, when they were no longer in the majority, they would be treated fairly under the agreement.

“That was the leap they took,” he said.

In order to honour the risks people took in the past, Clinton urged the people of Ireland not to take peace for granted, and urged the leaders in the North to get the Stormont institutions back up and running again or face the possibility of returning to the “hell” of the Troubles.

Dublin: Bill Clinton marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement Bill Clinton at UCD last night. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The great struggle of the 21st Century is over identity, said Clinton. People are seeking to define questions, such as ‘who am I? How do I relate to you?’.

He said the oldest conflict in human society is “us versus them – my identity is so separate from yours, what separates us is more important that what we have in common”.

He pointed out that this is exactly what the Good Friday Agreement aimed to tackle head-on, two decades ago.

“The Irish peace agreement is how to get from here to there,” he said.

The Good Friday Agreement is a “beacon of hope” according to the former president. He said the world was watching on 10 April 1998 – adding that they are watching now too.

Comparisons with Black Panther

In a rather interesting departure from the usual rhetoric surrounding politics and the peace agreement, the former president told the UCD students last night that there were similarities to be drawn between the agreement and the blockbuster movie Black Panther.

Screening of Marvel Studios' Black Panther at the National Air and Space Museum - Washington DC Director Ryan Coogler, Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter and Producer Nate Moore speak during a Q&A after a screening of Marvel Studios' Black Panther. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The audience weren’t sure where Clinton was going with the comparison at first – but he explained there was a lot of debate Stateside about the movie’s success.

Clinton said the film operated on a lot of levels, but that ultimately it is “an African morality tale”.

“Black Panther is what I would call inclusive tribalism. They are all proud of their identity. The good guys aren’t all perfect and the bad guys aren’t all that bad and they have to find a way to come together,” said Clinton.

Clinton and Ireland 

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Clinton has returned to Ireland on many occasions over the years.

In 2000, this reporter remembers being pressed up against a shop window when Bill, Hillary and their daughter, Chelsea, brought Dublin to a standstill when they decided to stop by and do a bit of shopping in the Blarney Woollen Mills.

US Clinton & Ahern toast Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Last night, Clinton recalled an event in 2001, when he travelled to Ireland to celebrate the establishment of the Clinton Institute in UCD, which recognises the role the US played in the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was someone the president had become fast friends with during the talks. Clinton told the student audience yesterday evening that Ahern said they had to mark the momentous occasion by staying up until at least 3.30am to celebrate.

Clinton said he couldn’t as he was due to fly back to the US. He argued that the dinner had to finish by 1.15am, but the former Taoiseach was having none of it.

“He said the Irish cannot give you a proper celebratory dinner unless we go on till fifteen minutes to three in the morning and he was dead serious. I said ‘Bertie, we’ll just have to cram it in,’” recalled Clinton.

“Bono introduced me with his wife, less than 24 hours after their last child was born. It was your typical Irish event,” he said, through laughter, adding:

I remember everything about it. At that time it was sort of fun to stay up half the night, though I felt bad I cheated Bertie out of an hour and a half of celebrations. Then, twenty years ago, when we did stay up till 2.30am, we ended up with a fine piece of work.

“20 years ago, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous,” he concluded.

“You should fill it.”

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