Posted By: April 10, 2014

Ray O’ Hanlon. Irish News ( Belfast). Wednesday, April  9, 2014.
IT was at this precise time of the year in 1992 that a relatively unknown american
politician arguably set the table at Windsor Castle for the combination of Michael
D. Higgins and Martin McGuinness. For if you extract Bill Clinton from the history
books, well, history would have been different.

How much so is still anybody's guess but "much" might be a word to consider again.
Irish americans rightly take pride in the role that they, and certain of their
leaders, have played in bringing about what for so many years would have seemed
beyond the possible in Northern Ireland. And they take that pride even as they
praise, and even as they criticise. And the sight of McGuinness dining in Windsor
Castle is certain to prompt reaction on both ends of that spectrum.

For the most part though, the participation of the Deputy First Minister in
ceremonies surrounding the state visit by President Michael D Higgins will get Irish
America's nod of approval. At the same time, the fact that this is the very first
state visit to Britain by an Irish head of state, thus being a reminder of more
difficult times, is raising a few eyebrows. "Once tainted by the legacy of
colonialism, Anglo-Irish ties are now so close that Dublin worries about Britain's
drift from the European Union, the bloc to which both countries belong," the New
York Times reported Monday while also noting that McGuinness, "Northern Ireland's
deputy first minister and a former commander in the Irish Republican army, takes
part in the visit". Back in the early days of '92, both McGuinness and Higgins were
a long way off from the likes of a state visit to anywhere, never mind Britain.
Sure, Higgins was in the Dail and thus a few steps ahead of McGuinness in terms of
future political life.

McGuinness would unsuccessfully seek a westminster seat in '92 for the Foyle
constituency. It would be five more years before he would triumph in Mid Ulster.
Either way, and their individual ambitions apart, the Irish presidency that both men
would one day pursue had, in the early 1990s, taken a dramatic step away from men in
suits and/or aran sweaters.

For this was the era of the two Marys. And some of those same years would also
amount to the era of Bill Clinton because in terms of Irish history, the Clinton
presidency absolutely deserves the appellation.

Last Sunday, April 6, was more or less the precise anniversary of the night in
Manhattan when Bill Clinton, whether he was fully aware of it or not, set out on his
way to change everything.

In 1992 the first Sunday in April was the 5th so the Sunday just gone was close
enough. Clinton was down to speak at an Irish American Presidential Forum in a
midtown hotel on that chilly early spring evening. California governor Jerry Brown
was also on the list.

Most in attendance were looking to Brown as the most likely Democratic candidate for
that year's presidential election, a contest against the seemingly safe incumbent,
George HW Bush.

Bill Clinton, the man from the far less politically consequential state of Arkansas,
was seen as more sparring partner for Brown than realistic contender against either
him or Bush.

But that was all about to change, though the evening never actually developed into a
political slugfest between political rivals.

Both men appeared separately at the forum, and hours apart. And both more or less
parroted the other on issues such as a US peace envoy for Northern Ireland and a
visa for Gerry Adams.

But it would be Clinton who would emerge victorious in the New York primary a few
days later and it would be Clinton who would hand Bush a single-term presidency in
November of that year.

In the years that followed the peace process would take form and bear fruit.

Many people would play pivotal roles but Bill Clinton, with most interested Irish
Americans cheering him on, would bring into the process the power and prestige of
the American presidency, something never seen before, something that was wholly new.
And now, in the second week of april, the long and winding road of that peace
process brought Michael and Martin together under a royal roof.

Bill Clinton was not there, but hopefully last night M&M spared him a thought, maybe
even toasted him - perhaps with a spoonful of windsor soup.