Hillary Clinton had no direct role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland and is a "wee bit silly" for exaggerating the part she played, according to Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former First Minister of the province.
"I don’t know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill [Clinton] going around," he said. Her recent statements about being deeply involved were merely "the sort of thing people put in their canvassing leaflets" during elections. "She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don’t want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player."
Mrs Clinton has made Northern Ireland key to her claims of having extensive foreign policy experience, which helped her defeat Barack Obama in Ohio and Texas on Tuesday after she presented herself as being ready to tackle foreign policy crises at 3am.
"I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland," she told CNN on Wednesday. But negotiators from the parties that helped broker the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 told The Daily Telegraph that her role was peripheral and that she played no part in the gruelling political talks over the years.
Lord Trimble shared the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, in 1998. Conall McDevitt, an SDLP negotiator and aide to Mr Hume during the talks, said: "There would have been no contact with her either in person or on the phone. I was with Hume regularly during calls in the months leading up to the Good Friday Agreement when he was taking calls from the White House and they were invariably coming from the president."
Central to Mrs Clinton’s claim of an important Northern Ireland role is a meeting she attended in Belfast in with a group of women from cross-community groups. "I actually went to Northern Ireland more than my husband did," she said in Nashua, New Hampshire on January 6th.
"I remember a meeting that I pulled together in Belfast, in the town hall there, bringing together for the first time Catholics and Protestants from both traditions, having them sitting a room where they had never been before with each other because they don’t go to school together, they don’t live together and it was only in large measure because I really asked them to come that they were there.
"And I wasn’t sure it was going to be very successful and finally a Catholic woman on one side of the table said, ’You know, every time my husband leaves for work in the morning I worry he won’t come home at night.
"And then a Protestant woman on the other side said, ’Every time my son tries to go out at night I worry he won’t come home again’. And suddenly instead of seeing each other as caricatures and stereotypes they saw each other as human beings and the slow, hard work of peace-making could move forward."
There is no record of a meeting at Belfast City Hall, though Mrs Clinton attended a ceremony there when her husband turned on the Christmas tree lights in November 1995. The former First Lady appears to be referring a 50-minute event the same day, arranged by the US Consulate, the same day at the Lamp Lighter Café on the city’s Ormeau Road.
The "Belfast Telegraph" reported the next day that the café meeting was crammed with reporters, cameramen and Secret Service agents. Conversation "seemed a little bit stilted, a little prepared at times" and Mrs Clinton admired a stainless steel tea pot, which was duly given to her, for keeping the brew "so nice and hot".
Among those attending were women from groups representing single parents, relationship counsellors, youth workers and a cultural society. In her 2003 autobiography "Living History", Mrs Clinton wrote about the meeting in some detail but made no claim that it was significant.
Rather than it being the first time the women had met, Mrs Clinton wrote: "Because they were willing to work across the religious divide, they had found common ground." Mary Fox, the wife of a former IRA prisoner and one of the seven women at the meeting, said she had been there on behalf of the Footprints community centre. "It was quite a political change for the women’s sector after the visit of Hillary Clinton. We would love to see her as president. She spoke to each of us and was very interested in our work. She was lovely."
Mr McDevitt said: "I’ve always had a theory that these people were already well networked. Maybe they needed a bit of bringing together and she [Mrs Clinton] was an ideal focus point." Once a peace deal was in place, Mrs Clinton supported women politicians and was always available if they visited Washington "to give them a pat on the back, give them moral support", he added.
"So in a classic woman politicky sort of way I think she was active...She was certainly investing some time, no doubt about it. Whether she was involved on the issue side I think probably not." Some of the people Mrs Clinton met went on to help found the Women’s Coalition, which took part in the Good Friday talks. Lord Trimble said: "The Women’s Coalition will think they were important. Other people beg to differ."
Steven King, a negotiator with Lord Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, argued that Mrs Clinton might even have helped delay the chances of peace. "She was invited along to some pre-arranged meetings but I don’t think she exactly brought anybody together that hadn’t been brought together already," he said. Mrs Clinton was "a cheerleader for the Irish republican side of the argument", he added.
"She really lost all credibility when on Bill Clinton’s last visit to Northern Ireland [in December 2000] when she hugged and kissed [Sinn Fein leaders] Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness
"There is no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland think very positively of Hillary Clinton’s support for our peace process, due to her visits to Northern Ireland and her meetings with so many people. In private she made countless calls and contacts, speaking to leaders and opinion makers on all sides, urging them to keep moving forward."