Ben Lowry: Clinton is always welcome in NI but he patronised us over Brexit

Former US president Bill Clinton arriving at the Culloden Hotel near Holywood for private engagements incluging a meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster.  Earlier on Tuesday, he criticised Brexit in a speech in Dublin. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Former US president Bill Clinton arriving at the Culloden Hotel near Holywood for private engagements incluging a meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster. Earlier on Tuesday, he criticised Brexit in a speech in Dublin. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Bill Clinton has shown a close interest in Northern Ireland since that memorable night in 1995 when he turned on the Christmas lights in Belfast.

During my childhood there was little prospect of an American president visiting Northern Ireland.

They might, like John F Kennedy or Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, briefly visit the Republic, but there was too much turmoil north of the border to travel up here.

We were also too small to attract them. The island of Ireland might just about feature on a presidential itinerary (when Kennedy visited Ireland in 1963, he was in fact stopping off on his return from Germany, which is when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”) but Northern Ireland was too far off the beaten track.

So as a country we were delighted that a US president touched down in Belfast in November 1995. It was like a sealing of the paramilitary ceasefires of the previous year.

Unionists and nationalists share a strong attachment to north America and Mr Clinton’s arrival delighted both communities, as did his later visits.

Although I was in London in 1995 I watched the visit closely, partly because I was born in Maine and have always followed US affairs.

Since that trip Mr Clinton has often come to Northern Ireland, and taken an interest in events here. His successors George W Bush and Barack Obama have also visited.

Not many small communities the size of Kent enjoy such goodwill from the leaders of the most powerful economy in the world.

That a man as influential as Mr Clinton has a lasting interest in NI, evident in his Clinton centre in Enniskillen, is something for which we are right to be grateful.

But there is a tendency to view a man of Mr Clinton’s stature as an international statesman of giant authority and wisdom.

We should not forget that he is an eloquent leader with a partisan political heritage.

That was evident in his comments in Dublin this week. The ex president was disparaging about the UK decision to leave the European Union, and patronising too.

“ ... People are reassessing whether what we have in common is more important than our differences,” he told Dublin City University as he collected an honorary degree on Tuesday. “A lot of people begged to differ. That’s really what the Brexit vote is all about.”

Then he imagined a Brexit voter saying: “I’m sorry we can’t stay together, we had a disagreement. Oh my God, I didn’t know I was going to lose that customs thing and all these economic benefits.”

This was a simplistic assessment of what happened in the EU referendum. It was not about Britain storming off after a disagreement. It was rather, as Theresa May said in her Florence speech, a manifestation of long-running ambivalence about the EU. “Britain never felt entirely at home [in it],” she said.

This is a common sentiment towards Brussels the further you get from Europe’s geographic heart.

Two highly civilised European nations have not joined, Iceland and Norway. Sweden did not do so until the 1990s, and only just (52% of its voters backed joining, the same narrow margin that backed EEC membership in Northern Ireland in 1975). Irish republicans are only recent enthusiasts for the EU.

Mr Clinton is right that many voters did not understand some economic consequences of departure, as is inevitable in a complex decision. My own switch from pro Brexit to Remain in the years before the vote was partly due to the fact that the more I read about things such as the single market, the more concerned I was at departure.

It is why I think that the ‘Norway model’, of leaving the customs union so we can do our own trade but staying in the single market, should not be dismissed. If some unionists argued for soft Brexit it would show there is debate within unionism on the matter.

But Mr Clinton’s critique is flawed even on that point.

First, it does not allow for the view that sovereignty might be more important than economic growth. Even if it is true that complete sovereignty is an illusion in an inter-dependent, globalised world, it is not unreasonable to argue that some reclaiming of sovereignty is possible and is worth some lost economic opportunity.

Some admirable critics of the EU accept that point, although it was not made by Brexiteers during the campaign. The population of the Irish Republic did not regret independence because it, a small country on the fringe of Europe, was poor in its early decades.

Likewise there is a legitimate view that the quality of life benefits of a lower population density, as well as cultural stability, are preferable to the economic growth that might flow from mass immigration.

Many of the arguments Mr Clinton makes about whether people should operate at the tribal level or as part of a larger global community are pertinent to his own United States, which jealously guards its own absolute independence and self sufficiency, and which is bitterly divided by race, tribe and culture.

I have been in audiences watching Bill Clinton speak in places from Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to New Hampshire. This time last year I saw him in introduce his wife in Raleigh North Carolina at midnight before election day.

He is highly intelligent, a compelling speaker, and likable too. He also has a deft understanding of the man in the street, as became clear in his 1992 election campaign.

But last year the Clintons were found out of touch with middle America. His Brexit remarks show a limited feel for Britain too.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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