Bill Clinton meets Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein leaders

Former US president Bill Clinton has met with Northern Ireland’s political leaders during a visit to Belfast.

Mr Clinton had separate engagements with DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the republican party’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill.

Bill Clinton and Arlene Foster after their meeting in the Culloden Hotel outside Belfast

Bill Clinton and Arlene Foster after their meeting in the Culloden Hotel outside Belfast

The private discussions came as the two parties remain at loggerheads in negotiations to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

The DUP stressed that the behind-closed-doors engagement with Mrs Foster at the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast did not focus on the ongoing impasse.

However, Sinn Fein said the situation at Stormont was on the agenda in its talks with the former president.

It is understood Mr Clinton is reluctant to be seen as directly intervening in the process.

Tweet from Gerry Adams showing photos of the Sinn Fein president with Michelle O'Neill and Mr Clinton

Tweet from Gerry Adams showing photos of the Sinn Fein president with Michelle O'Neill and Mr Clinton

After his meeting with Mrs Foster, Mr Clinton also made a more public announcement about a new educational initiative in her home constituency of Fermanagh.

An academic link-up with universities on both sides of the Atlantic will see the regeneration of a peace building centre already named in Mr Clinton’s honour in Enniskillen.

At the start of his comments, the former president told the DUP leader he did not like describing her as “former” first minister and expressed hope the institutions would be back up and running soon.

“We are going to get this going again I think,” he said.

After meeting with Mr Clinton elsewhere in Belfast, Mrs O’Neill said: “We had a wide ranging discussion on a number of issues including the current difficulties facing the political process, efforts to restore the political institutions on the basis of rights and equality and the implications of Brexit.”

Dublin City University, Ulster University and University of Massachusetts (UMass) have come together in a joint initiative to regenerate the Clinton Centre.

The building is built on the site of the IRA’s notorious 1987 Remembrance Day bombing.

A permanent memorial to the 12 victims of the attack will be incorporated into the new-look centre.

“I think it is altogether fitting that there is going to be a monument to what happened at Enniskillen,” said Mr Clinton.

“I think it is also important that this small community where a very big bad thing happened will able to launch good things for the future and I am thrilled.”

Mrs Foster welcomed the initiative.

“It is a sad reality that Enniskillen is known to many across the world as a result of the 1987 bomb in the town,” she said.

“I have worked with many of the survivors of that bomb. A permanent memorial for the victims being incorporated into the remodelled Clinton Centre will be a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives and those who still live with the scars.”

Mr Clinton was due to fly to Northern Ireland on Monday but the trip was postponed due to Storm Ophelia.

Since his first visit to Northern Ireland in 1995 Mr Clinton has been the most high-profile international champion of the peace process.

During his most recent visit earlier this year for the funeral of Martin McGuinness, he urged party leaders to complete the work of the former IRA commander turned politician, and to restore power-sharing.

The Stormont government collapsed in January after the resignation of Mr McGuinness as deputy first minister, in a row over the DUP’s handling of a botched renewable heat energy scheme.

Months of talks aimed at restoring power-sharing have so far failed, with Sinn Fein and the DUP unable to reach agreement on a number of key areas, including an Irish language act and legacy issues.