President Clinton said he was "elated" at the formal opening today of a new power-sharing government of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and expressed confidence that the Irish Republican Army will make progress on disarmament over the next few months.
In a telephone interview with a group of journalists, Clinton said he expects the new Northern Ireland government to succeed. "We have no reason, in my judgment, on this day, to be anything other than hopeful," Clinton said from Seattle.
The new Belfast government faces a significant deadline in about three months, however. If the IRA does not begin disposing of its weapons by February, the largest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, has pledged to pull out of the government.
Clinton said he understands why Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble set the February deadline, because "that was necessary for him to get his party's agreement" to form the new government this week. But the president said he doesn't expect this new requirement to endanger the peace process.
"I personally believe there will be progress on decommissioning," Clinton said, using the term applied in Northern Ireland to the disarmament of the British province's various paramilitary groups.
In a significant step, the IRA confirmed today it had appointed a senior member to meet with a Belfast-based disarmament commission, news services reported.
Talking about his own role in the long peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, Clinton took a bury-the-hatchet stance toward British government officials who, early on in the process, had criticized his involvement. Clinton broke years of precedent when he welcomed Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, to the White House in 1995.
That invitation is now generally seen as a key element in convincing the IRA to reduce the level of violence and push the peace process forward. At the time, though, the British prime minister, John Major, was harshly critical.
"He was tough on me, and the whole British government was tough on me," the president recalled. "They said, you know, we had abandoned the special relationship and all that."
Looking back now, Clinton said, "I think the United States did have a catalytic role in the beginning . . . and our relationship with Great Britain is as strong as it has ever been." As for Major's criticism, "I don't think about that so very much now," Clinton said.
The president also sought to counter rumors that he might be planning a trip to Northern Ireland soon. "I didn't mean to raise speculation about a particular trip to Ireland," he said. "I do not, at this point, have specific plans to travel there."