- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

DUNDALK, Ireland President Clinton, on a sentimental farewell visit to Ireland, yesterday took his message of peace and reconciliation to this town that has been a recruiting ground for Northern Ireland's most violent dissidents.

"Nobody wants to go back to "the Troubles,' " Mr. Clinton said in Dundalk, the suspected home base of the so-called Real IRA, a breakaway Irish Republican Army faction blamed for the deaths of 29 persons in a 1998 bomb blast at Omagh.

Acknowledging that the peace process in Northern Ireland remains fragile a year and a half after Catholics and Protestants signed the landmark Good Friday agreement, Mr. Clinton added, "There are still a few hills we have to climb [but] I think we have to keep going. I don't think reversal is an option."

The visit, Mr. Clinton's third to Ireland as president, was shaping up as a love feast between Mr. Clinton and local politicians, with praise lavished from each for mutual efforts to bring peace to the British province.

Mr. Clinton opened his visit in Dublin, the Irish capital, where he was warmly greeted by President Mary McAleese and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Michael J. Sullivan.

He later attended a reception at the premises of the famed Guinness brewery, where he drank beer with 1,900 invited guests, including Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

"Every time we needed you, you had the time to make the call," Mr. Ahern told the president in recognition of his efforts to settle the Northern Ireland conflict. "It should be regarded as part of your legacy as peacemaker and we'll never forget it in this country."

Mr. Clinton, for his part, said, "One of the things I will most cherish … is that I had a chance to put America on the side of peace, and dignity, and equality and opportunity for all people in both communities in Northern Ireland.

"Even though it gave me a few more gray hairs, I'm still grateful that I did."

The Irish press had expected Mr. Clinton to be much tougher than he was on the militants who still seek to undermine the peace process during his evening address in Dundalk, just 15 miles from the border with Northern Ireland.

Through almost 30 years of ethnic strife, the town served as a staging area for IRA operations as well as a safe haven for terrorists on the run. The town earned the local nickname "El Paso."

Dundalk has largely shed that image in recent years, having been a principal beneficiary of the nation's economic boom and grants from the American-led International Fund for Ireland.

"Dundalk is a meeting point between Dublin and Belfast," Mr. Ahern said in introducing Mr. Clinton. "More than most towns in our country, Dundalk, as a border town, has appreciated the need for a lasting peace."

Still, security forces worry about the threat from groups like the Real IRA, who are believed to operate from the Dundalk area. While their weaponry is less sophisticated than that of the IRA, such groups have carried out more than 20 terrorist attacks in the past year.

But Mr. Clinton passed on the chance to send a strong message to the terror groups, stressing instead the need for politicians on both sides to work hard to resolve the remaining issues that threaten the peace process.

"I think the leaders just have to find a way through the last three or four difficult issues and I think it can be done," said the president, who is accompanied by his wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea. "I'll do what I can."

He appeared to dismiss suggestions that he would remain involved in the Irish issue after leaving office.

"I think the new president, whoever it may be, will want to have a new team in place. And I want to support that. I will support whatever decision the new administration makes … and if I can be a resource, I will," he said.

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