London (CNSNews.com) - President Clinton, on his farewell visit to Ireland Tuesday, played down suggestions that he could play a future mediation role in Northern Ireland, after the tenure ends next month. But he did not rule it out altogether.
"I think the new president, whoever it may be, will want to have a new team in place and I will support that," he told reporters in Dublin. "I want to support whatever decisions the new administration takes.
"If I can be a resource I will. If I can ever help the Irish, of course I will. But in terms of my government's representation, that will be entirely up to the new president."
Earlier, Clinton advisor P.J. Crowley said the outgoing president would be prepared to play a role in the process after his term ends, "if that is something the parties wanted to consider."
The peace process is taking strain over mutual accusations of non-compliance with obligations contained in the 1998 agreement, as well as a resurgence of sectarian violence.
Unionists say Republican paramilitaries must meet their disarmament commitments, while Republicans want the British government to move more quickly in demilitarizing the province and reforming the mainly Protestant police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
A number of Irish and British newspapers Tuesday were full of praise for Clinton's involvement, with some welcoming the possibility that it could endure beyond his presidency.
Irish Premier Bertie Ahern also paid tribute to Clinton, telling him the Good Friday agreement "should rightly be regarded as part of your legacy, president as peacemaker."
But some dissenting voices were also heard.
John Taylor, the outspoken deputy leader of the main pro-British Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, suggested that a future role for Clinton was a bad idea, as too many people in Northern Ireland would not trust him.
"The Democrats are, to a large extent, the captives of the Irish Mafia in America - the Kennedy clan, New York, Massachusetts, all that population who are clearly pro-Irish," he said.
"The British majority in Northern Ireland is never terribly comfortable with them."
Many unionists feel they were called upon by the peace process to make too many concessions and that the U.S. administration was too pro-Republican. They balked at having to share power with Republicans closely linked to paramilitary groups, to see the police force that has stood as a bulwark against terrorism for decades emasculated by a series of hard-hitting "reforms," and to witness the release from prison of hundreds of security prisoners - including Protestant "loyalist" extremists.
The fact that the Irish Republican Army has not given up or destroyed its arms caches has fueled their view that the process has been unbalanced.
The conservative Daily Telegraph in London expressed some of these sentiments in a hard-hitting editorial Tuesday, saying of Clinton: "Time and again, he has indulged the Republican enemies of a free society and effectively treated them on a par with the constitutional [unionist and nationalist] parties."
The paper questioned Clinton's decision in 1994 to grant a U.S. visa to Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, before a ceasefire was called, and for shaking Adams' hand even as the IRA was preparing to detonate a bomb in London's Docklands which put an end to the first of two ceasefires.
It also accused Clinton of breaking his commitment to the Ulster Unionists that, if they entered a power-sharing executive with Republicans in late 1999, he would stand by them if the Republicans failed to disarm.
On terrorism, the Telegraph said Clinton and his administration had "played a key role in undermining the organization which the terrorists fear most" - the RUC.
It was the RUC who were the "real peace-keeping heroes," it said. Their expertise was needed now more than ever, "and much less of Bill Clinton's Pollyannaish schmaltz."
Clinton's position on the Adams visa issue - which also angered Britain at the time - was that unless Republicans were included in the process, they would not be persuaded to abandon the path of violence.
Adams said of Clinton Tuesday: "He has taken an open-handed, balanced approach."
Tonight the president will deliver a speech in Dundalk, a town near the border with Northern Ireland regarded as a stronghold of dissident Republicans who reject the peace deal. Unionists have urged Clinton to use the occasion to announce that a group called the Real IRA will be added to America's list of terrorist organizations.
The organization killed 31 people in a 1998 bombing in the town of Omagh, and has carried out more than 20 smaller attacks since early this year. Last month, Northern Ireland police seized a horsebox packed with explosives, which they believe the Real IRA was planning to detonate in central London.
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