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Jewish World Review / July 23, 1998 / 29 Tamuz, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Can frequent-flyer miles alone earn Bubba a Nobel Prize?

WASHINGTON -- An oddity was noticed recently in Bill Clinton's travel schedule: He was staying in the country.

From early July, when he returned from China, to November, when he was scheduled to go to Malaysia for an economic conference, the president of the United States was going to stay in the United States.

Doin' what he does, ah, second-best.
Everybody who noticed this said the same thing: no way.

Clinton has found that he likes travel, that he prefers news stories linking his name to Jiang Zemin and Nelson Mandela to stories linking his name to Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr, and that all his trips are free.

So why not enjoy it while he can?

Which is why a few weeks ago the White House announced Clinton would be traveling to Russia in September and this week Ireland was added to the trip.

Clinton is going to Russia in part to prop up Boris Yeltsin, who continues to face stiff opposition and a faltering economy. And as to Ireland, well, Clinton has been waiting to go to Ireland for what his people call a "victory lap" ever since a peace accord was worked out there in April.

The optimists on Clinton's staff figure he has an outside chance for a Nobel Peace Prize before he leaves office and an Irish peace would be the centerpiece of his efforts.

Only one problem: There has to be an Irish peace.

Clinton's interest in Ireland is not only because he is part Irish but because he believes the huge Irish vote in America, often forgotten by political strategists who concentrate only on minority groups, could not only determine the outcome of the congressional elections this fall, but whether Democrats retain the presidency in 2000.

There are 44 million Americans of Irish descent, the single largest ethnic group after German-Americans, and they are classic swing voters. Having moved both toward the suburbs and the Republican Party over the decades, voting for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s, they turned to Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

So far, Clinton has not disappointed Irish-Americans, who have urged a more activist role in Irish affairs. In January 1994, Clinton defied the British government of John Majors by granting a visa to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, marking the first time a U.S. president had opposed the British on Northern Ireland.

In August 1994, the IRA announced a cease-fire, and eight months later, Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit Northern Ireland, where he was met by wildly cheering crowds in Belfast and Londonderry. He would call it "the best two days of my presidency."

"Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency both in 1992 and 1996 because of Reagan Democrats," a political adviser said. "And the biggest group of Reagan Democrats are Irish-Americans. Clinton wants to keep those voters in the Democratic Party."

Toward that end, Clinton has instructed his staff to keep in daily touch with leaders in Northern Ireland, as he keeps frequent contact with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

This year, there have been three historic events there: the Good Friday peace accord in April between Protestants and Catholic factions, the referendum on May 22 in which more than 85 percent of Irish voters approved the accord (71 percent in the north and 95 percent in the south) and the election in June of a Northern Ireland Assembly, in which 72 percent of the elected representatives support the accord.

But these events make peace possible, they do not make peace inevitable.

And the first major challenge loomed as Clinton was traveling in China: the Protestant marching season.

The Protestant Orange Order has been marching in Northern Ireland since 1807 in celebration of William of Orange's victory in 1690 over his rival for the throne, the Catholic King James II.

There are thousands of marches, most peaceful, but the controversial ones go through Catholic neighborhoods and in the past this has led to widespread rioting and bloodshed.

This year, with a fragile peace being maintained throughout the country, the independent Parades Commission worked out numerous compromises allowing parades to take place, but it was not able to work out a compromise over the Portadown march, 25 miles southwest of Belfast. There, the Orange Order refused to talk to the Catholic residents group, saying it was not representative of the neighborhood.

So the commission banned the march and Tony Blair backed the commission, apparently with Clinton's strong support.

"Blair and Clinton talk frequently," a senior administration official said, "and there have been several points at which our intervention has been critical."

And then came one, galvanizing, tragic event. Though firebomb attacks are not uncommon in Northern Ireland, the nation was stunned when Protestant extremists firebombed the home of a Catholic woman living with a Protestant man and killed three of her sons, aged 10, 9 and 8.

Support for the Orange Order dwindled overnight as people on both sides of the conflict saw such killings as a throwback to an era they did not want to relive.

And Clinton figured now was the time to go to Ireland, both north and south, to see if he could lend his support to cementing a peace.

"Clearly the killings have sobered people," Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg said. "It is too early to say whether it will last, however." hair.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.