On St. Patrick’s Day in the United States, Americans like to indulge in traditions such as parades, wearing green, and drinking green beer to celebrate the Irish heritage in our country. Those celebrations tend to be fun but don’t often account for the centuries-old relationship between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United States. Both President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton have made significant contributions to the relations between these countries.
President Bill Clinton changed the United States’ relationship with Ireland and Great Britain through his involvement to bring about a peace deal between the Unionist and Nationalist parties of Northern Ireland. While campaigning in 1992, Clinton promised to give a United States visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of the Sinn Féin party, which had ties to the Irish Republican Army. In 1994, against the advice of advisors, Clinton granted the visa to Adams. This act was one of the reasons the Irish Republican Army ordered a ceasefire in 1994.
On November 30, 1995, President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Northern Ireland. Until that time, the United States had not engaged in the conflict between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. President Clinton was the first president to visit Northern Ireland. The President and First Lady went to show support for the peace process between the political parties. The Unionists wanted to remain a part of Great Britain, and the Nationalists wanted to become a part of the Republic of Ireland, which secured independence in 1921.
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played an important role in providing a voice for the Northern Irish women. She hosted teas for women of the Unionist and Nationalist parties. She also started a conference called Vital Voices, which allowed women leaders in Northern Ireland to be heard. One of her final trips as Secretary of State was to Belfast, where she and her husband had first arrived nearly twenty years earlier.
In April 1998, the Belfast Accord (also referred to as the Good Friday Accord) was signed. This agreement aimed to create a government where the vote of the majority would determine if Northern Ireland would remain under the rule of Great Britain. The leaders of the two main political parties in Northern Ireland, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party, jointly won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in signing the agreement.
President Clinton’s diplomatic efforts continue to have long reaching effects. He was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame in 2011 for his work in the 1990s. In January 2020, Queens University in Belfast appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton the 11th Chancellor of the university. She will serve as Chancellor for five years and is the first female chancellor of the university.
Twenty-two of the forty-five United States’ presidents have claimed Irish heritage, including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. John Robert Greene says there’s no proof that Arkansan president Bill Clinton has Irish ancestry. That small fact did not stop Clinton from becoming one of the most influential presidents in Irish-Great Britain relations. He is not the only one with a bit of Irish history, however. Abraham Lincoln was a staunch Irish supporter, despite protests from his wife Mary Todd. His support of the Irish was so prominent that 15,000 Irish Americans fought for the Union during the Civil War. This support affected the Confederacy so much that Jefferson Davis sent a Bishop and priest to Ireland to try to convince the Catholic Church to prevent any more immigrants from joining the Union Army.
While Clinton was the first acting president to visit Northern Ireland, Ulysses S Grant was the first former president to visit Ireland in 1879. Not every Irish citizen was excited to see the former president, though. Grant had sided with the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s. The Catholic members of the Cork City Town Council objected so strongly to Grant’s visit that he changed his itinerary and visited the city of Ulster instead.
President John F. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president. His Catholic roots were the subject of controversy as Protestant Americans wanted to make sure there was ample separation between the Catholic Church and American democracy. Irish ancestry was still a hot topic when Ronald Reagan ran for president. Reagan denied having Irish ancestry, instead saying he was British. While Reagan denied Irish ancestry, he was a fan of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House, reveling in the festivities.
Whenever Irish prime ministers come to visit the White House, the traditional gift is a vase of green shamrocks. You can tell its St. Patrick’s Day at the White House because of the emerald green water flowing from the fountain. First Lady Michelle Obama started this tradition. Green hasn’t always been associated with the Patron Saint of Ireland. St. Patrick was originally associated with the color blue!