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BELFAST: Northern Ireland’s leaders yesterday paid tribute to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for helping build peace in the troubled British province, as she visited Belfast amid a spate of new attacks and tensions.
First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness praised Hillary and her husband former US president Bill Clinton, for their steadfast support when loyalists and republicans grappled in the 1990s to end the sectarian bloodshed.
“You are one person who has consistently been there to help us and not just in terms of helping us until we got an agreement,” Robinson told Hillary, after the three met in Stormont Castle, seat of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, in east Belfast.
“You recognised as few others did that the process of getting peace goes beyond getting an agreement itself.”
Tensions have flared in past days since Belfast city councillors voted on Monday not to fly the British flag all year around.
A member of parliament for the city, Naomi Long, yesterday received a death threat for her non-sectarian Alliance party’s support for the decision.
Two bombs were also found in other parts of Northern Ireland overnight in a sign of the lingering sectarian tensions despite the peace process, although there was no apparent link to Clinton’s visit.
“Both Hillary and Bill Clinton have been absolutely vital voices for us in our process and that is something that has to be recognised, over many, many years,” McGuinness told reporters after their talks.
Bill Clinton was a key player in the peace process during the 1990s, and the support the Clintons had given Northern Ireland in helping to bring jobs to the province would “never be forgotten”, he said.
Some 3,500 people died in three decades of bloodshed between Northern Irish Protestants who favoured continued union with Britain, and Catholics seeking a unified Ireland.
A 1998 peace agreement largely ended the conflict, but sporadic unrest and bomb threats continue as dissident offshoots remain violently opposed to the power-sharing government in Belfast, formed of Catholic and Protestant parties.
Hillary joined with Robinson, the leader of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and McGuinness, from the republican Sinn Fein, in condemning the renewed spate of violence, as well as the death threat against Long.
“There can be no place in the new Northern Ireland for any violence. Any remnants of the past must be quickly condemned,” Clinton said at a joint press conference.
McGuinness said he viewed the threats against Long and recent attacks with “total and absolute disgust and revulsion”.
Clinton had flown into a military airport outside Belfast from Dublin for talks with senior leaders, wrapping up one of her last trips to Europe.
She was also due to address a lunch at the new Titanic building, opened earlier this year to mark the centennial of the sinking of the luxury passenger liner.
Police said around 1,000 people rioted in Belfast after the Union flag vote on Monday, and 15 officers, two security workers and a press photographer were injured in the demonstrations.
Trouble broke out minutes after Belfast city councillors voted to remove the Union Flag from City Hall, meaning it will be taken down for the first time since the building opened in 1906.