Former president of the USA Bill Clinton has accepted the freedom of Belfast with a plea to its citizens to ensure the next generation is free to enjoy peace.
He and former senator George Mitchell, America’s envoy during the time of the Good Friday Agreement, were tonight together bestowed with the honour on the accord’s 20th anniversary – the 83rd and 84th people to receive it.
The gathering at the Ulster Hall in Belfast began with music, poetry readings, and songs from an all-women choir clad in green gowns, before Mr Clinton told his audience that he had fallen in love with the city in the 23 years since his first visit.
He joked about that high-profile occasion, in 1995, when he switched on the Christmas tree lights at City Hall little over a year after the paramilitary ceasefires, and when the peace process was still in its fledgling stages.
“I was terrified the lights would short out and the whole thing would be a metaphor for the failure of the peace process,” he said.
“But in front of tens of thousands of people, the lights came on, the lights came on in Belfast and the lights stayed on. Through thick and thin and ups and downs and setbacks and disagreements and governments in and out of Stormont – for 20 years the lights have stayed on.”
He added: “I am glad to finally have the freedom of a place which I did my small part to make free.”
Mr Clinton acknowledged the difficulties presented both by Brexit and the current powersharing impasse at Stormont.
But he urged people to reflect on how far the city had come since the 1998 agreement was struck.
“I will always be grateful I came to Belfast when peace had been made but the city was still troubled,” he said.
“When wise and good and decent people actually had to make a decision to do the right thing, to be the right sort of person, to give children the right sort of future.
“It was a fortune wind that blew me here.
“The least George and I can do with our freedom is to plead with you to give the same gift to generations yet to come.”
At one point he said: “Do not give up the freedom this peace agreement has brought... don’t give it up.”
He also said he had been “moved” by the statement made by the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando on Monday, which said they will expel and members engaged in criminality and aim to provide “positive” community leadership.
“I know we’ve heard it before but it sounded sincere to me yesterday,” he said.
Mr Mitchell meanwhile told the audience: “I’ve had the privilege of receiving many awards and honours in my life but I can say to you from the bottom of my heart that none means more to me than this one.” He said he will display it prominently in his own home.
He recounted his own background as the son of a janitor of Irish descent, and an illiterate Lebanese mother who did night shifts as a textile worker.
“My parents were very poor,” he said. “But in their minds they were successful because their children had the opportunity for education that they did not.”
He recalled that during the talks process in Northern Ireland, his wife gave birth to a son. He was considering not returning to Northern Ireland because the talks at that time seemed “hopeless”.
However, he said the birth of his child got him thinking about families “of the 61 children born in Northern Ireland that day, and I asked myself: shouldn’t they have the same chance in life that I want for my child?”
He said the deal succeeded due to the “courage” of the Province’s political leaders in 1998, whom he dubbed “real heroes”.