Clinton: compromise should not be a dirty word

President Bill Clinton  delivers a keynote address to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at UCD Dublin
President Bill Clinton delivers a keynote address to mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement at UCD Dublin

Voters in Northern Ireland have to stop punishing politicians who compromise, ex-US president Bill Clinton has said.

He linked political paralysis to the rise of authoritarianism and warned the 15-month stalemate at Stormont would eventually reach its limit.

Mr Clinton said it was easy to underestimate the fragility of the system following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he supported.

At a talk to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the agreement, he told an audience at University College Dublin (UCD) on Monday night: “No one will drop off the face of the Earth with any of the reasonable compromises that have been discussed.

“The only thing that would be calamitous would be to let the whole thing die.

“To confine ourselves to purgatory or go back to hell instead of going into a future.”

Mr Clinton conjured an image of a political purgatory of broken hopes.

He said: “If you do that, slowly, you will begin to lose your democracy in the North.”

He added everybody could step back and make a new beginning.

“You have to be willing to give,” he said. “Compromise has to become a good thing, not a dirty word and voters have to stop punishing people who make those compromises and start rewarding them.”

Mr Clinton said inclusive groups made better decisions than homogenous ones.

He said too much paralysis meant voters began to elect those who would be the best boss – an allusion to the strongman dictatorships in other parts of the world.

“The most important thing is that the peace is held and nobody has questioned democracy,” he said.

When it comes to the present stalemate, he said: “There is simply a limit to how long people can go on. There is a limit to the elasticity of inertia, of paralysis.”

At one point, talking about the violence which erupted during the 1990s in the Balkans, he wondered: “Is there something in human psychology that makes us not only struggle to be different to others ... [but also] to make the next little step, which means: different and unique is better?”

Mr Clinton recalled staying up into the small hours the night the 1998 Northern Irish deal was struck, enjoying only a couple of hours sleep as he conversed with his special representative in Belfast.

He concluded: “In his Nobel Prize speech Seamus Heaney also said of WB Yeats that his intent was to clear a space in the mind and the world for the miraculous.

“Twenty years ago tomorrow, 17 hours late, everybody impatient, some brave people cleared a space for the miraculous – you should fill it.”

During his talk, the veteran Democrat also took a swipe at right-wing Tea Party-style elements in US politics.

He drew laughs when he said: “We got a person who went to Harvard Law School running for the Senate in Alaska, who says that social security and unemployment compensation are both unconstitutional because the framers [those who helped create it during the late 18th century] did not mention them in the constitution. I couldn’t make this up.”

He added a republican who is running against the Democratic mayor of Denver had said that the city’s bicycle paths are “a UN plot to take sovereignty of the city of Denver away from the US”.

He suggested such political trends arise out of growing inequality and “disempowered” people, who are “just mad” and “blame the government”.

The talk was hosted by the Clinton Institute for American Studies at UCD, and its director Liam Kennedy said Mr Clinton would “always be welcomed and revered” as “one of the great architects” of the Good Friday Agreement, who “took risks” for the peace process.

The Clinton Institute dates back to 2001, when the Irish government decided that an American studies department should be established, and named after Mr Clinton.

It describes itself in summary as follows: “Through research, teaching and public engagement the UCD Clinton Institute promotes advanced study of the United States and its global relations.”