POLITICAL leaders must get out of Stormont and engage with their disillusioned grassroots, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday.
Speaking at the new £90 million Titanic centre which was built as a beacon of hope in Belfast’s docklands, Mrs Clinton said the peace process was being challenged.
She added: “What we have to do is get out of the ballrooms, out of Stormont and into the communities where people live, where they do not have that lasting hope of optimism.”
This was Mrs Clinton’s seventh visit to Northern Ireland. She and her husband, former US President Bill Clinton, were key figures in helping carve out the peace process during the 1990s.
Mrs Clinton said she wanted to continue to work with political leaders to help progress the peace even after she stands down from politics next year.
She said: “There is a lot to be proud of but I want to offer a cautionary word because if we do not focus on a community level, on that interface, we will not have really achieved the peace that has been worked for.
“I want to remain involved as a friend, advocate and cheerleader for what we have already achieved. Let us reach out to those who do not yet feel in their heart what has been achieved.”
Earlier, Mrs Clinton met Alliance Party MP Naomi Long, who is under threat from loyalists over her party’s stance on a controversial vote to restrict the flying of the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall.
Among the 500 guests at the lunch which was organised by the Worldwide Ireland Funds were former First Minister Ian Paisley, 1972 Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters and Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and David Trimble.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers joined North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr, Stormont Speaker Willie Hay, DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots as well as Sinn Fein ministers Caral Ni Chuilin and John O’Dowd.
Guests dined on Lissara farm chicken with Clonakilty black pudding, potatoes and cabbage, with a dessert of Armagh apple crumble.
Security was tight, with armoured police Land Rovers parked outside the Titanic centre, which is close to where rioting erupted on Monday night.
Mrs Clinton said she was impressed by the steady, common sense leadership provided by the First and Deputy First Ministers in the Executive at Stormont.
She was presented with a Worldwide Ireland Funds lifetime achievement award in recognition of her commitment to peace and reconciliation.
The specially-commissioned Belleek China piece showed a basket of flowers from Northern Ireland and her home state of Illinois.