Declassified files: Plans for President Clinton visit alarmed NIO officials

President Bill Clinton pictured in Londonderry during his 1995 visit
President Bill Clinton pictured in Londonderry during his 1995 visit
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The government did not want President Clinton to visit a Belfast interface, declassified files reveal.

A file released at the Public Record Office details some of the planning for what would be the first visit to Northern Ireland by a sitting US president.

President Clinton would arrive in Belfast on November 30 1995 at a key point in the peace process. Images of him turning on the Christmas tree lights in Belfast would travel around the world as a symbol of how Northern Ireland was being transformed.

Ahead of the visit, America officials told the Foreign Office that communications equipment, helicopters and cars for the US president’s motorcade would arrive in Northern Ireland on three huge CS Galaxy cargo planes over several days before Mr Clinton’s arrival.

On November 7, senior NIO official Mike Maxwell said: “I maintain regular contact with the Americans and the FCO in a so far vain attempt to elicit some fuller information about the visit.”

A restricted memo from Mr Maxwell seven days later said that “the Americans are still proposing to include a tour of the Belfast peace line. This is a proposal which the secretary of state has been seeking to discourage, and he may therefore wish to raise it when he meets [US Ambassador to London] Admiral Crowe this afternoon.”

The previous day, fellow Stormont official David Watkins said in a memo: “I am distinctly unhappy at the idea of a walk on the peace line.

“At a meeting last month the secretary of state drew attention to the likelihood of televised coverage of a walk along Belfast’s Berlin wall, with all the negative imagery that this contains.

“It may be that the Americans are rather simplistically imagining that images of pre-ceasefire peace wall conditions can be juxtaposed with images of the peace-to-all-men switching on of the Christmas tree lights.

“But the lunch time news in Europe and breakfast TV in the USA will have only the peace line to focus on ... I find this a thoroughly bad idea, and I think the Americans need to be told so quickly and firmly.”

In the end, the president did not visit a peace wall, but went to the Falls and Shankill.

The government obtained an up to date copy of Bill Clinton’s itinerary from the BBC. On November 10 1995, NIO official Mike Maxwell said that in a meeting with FCO officials “Mr Woods [Stormont’s top press officer] produced the latest version of the Clintons’ programme which he had obtained from the BBC who in turn had received it from the White House press office … it is broadly similar to the programme advised to us by the recce team.”

Referring to a reception being hosted by the secretary of state, he said that they had told US officials that “we would work closely with the Americans in drawing up the guest list. We would not seek to exclude guests for political reasons (ie. Adams/McGuinness) ... Lady Mayhew had pointed out that the guest list should be gender-proofed”.

He said that the security arrangements for the visit “will be horrendous” but the RUC “are reasonably relaxed about their relationship with the Secret Service” and “some of the problems ... about the carrying of weapons seem to have been resolved”.