In September 1998, President Bill Clinton and Hilary celebrated the Good Friday Peace Agreement in a whirlwind swing through Ireland. The White House Advance Office called to say Hillary directed them to ask Irish-Americans in the Administration to staff the trip. I turned catatonic with excitement. My responsibility? Wrangling a group of Congresspeople to piggyback on President Clinton’s schedule. I simply had to make sure they got to events on time.
The code word for Congressional Delegations on foreign trips is “CO” “DEL”. The CODEL to Ireland consisted of six Congresspeople. Limited space in official vehicles and tight security meant none of them traveled with staff.
I was it.
The White House travel office expanded the CODEL up until the last minute to include a few Cabinet Secretaries, heads of Agencies and VIPs.
I corralled the twenty CODEL in the lobby of a waterfront Belfast hotel. Scheduled to leave midday, I asked the hotel to ring all their rooms with a post-jet lag reminder. During the hour-long bus ride to Armagh, the Irish-American CODEL understood that their lives had been accorded a peak experience. Some used their phones to share their excitement. Some, unnerved by recent violence in Northern Ireland, prayed silently.
As for me? I found myself reaching for the microphone to give an ad hoc history of Armagh I’d learned mostly in Catholic grade school.
“St. Patrick established the town as the center of Irish Christianity in the third century.”
Just outside Belfast I pointed out the notorious Long Kesh prison, a reminder of the 1980s hunger strikers and Irish republican Bobby Sands. He was elected to the British House of Commons while in prison and died at twenty-seven.
“Margaret Thatcher refused to classify the hunger strikers as political prisoners,” one Congressman piped up, “she made sure they were criminals with no special rights.”
“Ten hunger strikers died,” said another.
At Armagh the CODEL crowded into their VIP seats next to the stage on the Mall, a sprawling meadow at the foot of two cathedrals both named for St. Patrick. One Catholic. One Protestant. CODEL members kept asking me where Clinton was. No one around us nor on the phone revealed anything—not the senior staff, the Secret Service, nor our Irish counterparts. Fear that something ominous may be stirring hovered over the crowd. Violent dissidents had wanted the peace process to fail.
Two weeks earlier a car bomb had exploded in Omagh, a town thirty-five miles from where we sat, killing twenty-nine people. Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony & Cherie Blair, secretly arranged to meet with the families of Omagh victims on the way to the peace celebration in Armagh. They were an hour late.
On that stage, on that night, Bill Clinton roared to thousands, “…in the face of any act of madness born of hatred over religious, or racial, or ethnic or tribal differences, people everywhere can shake their fists in defiance and say, ‘Do not tell me it has to be this way. Look at Northern Ireland.’”