An embarrassed President Clinton expressed regret today for some impromptu remarks comparing the failure of Northern Ireland's politicians to make peace to two drunks who can't quite give up the drink.
Although the president said he meant only to show how hard it is for ethnic groups to let go of struggles they have waged for generations, the metaphor raised concerns in some Irish communities about reinforcing stereotypes about the Irish and alcoholism.
"I used a metaphor that was inappropriate," Clinton said in a statement read by press secretary Joe Lockhart. "I want to express my regret for any offense my remarks caused."
The remarks were made this morning as Clinton spoke at the dedication of the new U.S. embassy in Canada.
"I've spent an enormous amount of time trying to help the people in the land of my forebears in Northern Ireland get over 600 years of religious fights," said Clinton, departing from the carefully vetted prepared text. "And every time they make an agreement to do it, they're like a couple of drunks walking out of the bar for the last time--when they get to the swinging door, they turn right around and go back in again and say, 'I just can't quite get there.' It's hard to give up these things."
As he spoke, Clinton smiled broadly and gestured grandly. But off to the side, faces of American officials turned somber as they realized the gaffe. The audience of Canadian officials laughed nervously.
Within hours, the remark provoked reactions across the Atlantic.
"This is a highly offensive and insulting remark to the people of Northern Ireland," said Ian Paisley, the teetotaling leader of hard-line Protestants in Northern Ireland who opposed last year's Good Friday power-sharing and peace agreement.
But supporters of the agreement, like the leader of the predominantly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, said Clinton's comments reflected understandable frustration with the slow pace of implementing the agreement.