Bill Clinton once called his visit to Northern Ireland 20 years ago "the best two days of my presidency.” And an event honoring his wife’s role in the region’s peace process Monday may have made the day the best for Hillary Clinton in some time.
At a ceremony inducting the former secretary of state into the Irish America Hall of Fame in New York City, the all-but-declared presidential candidate enjoyed the welcome respite after two difficult weeks weathering allegations that she flouted record keeping rules by using a private email server as secretary of state.
“It is such a personal pleasure and delight for me to be here,” Clinton said at what is likely to be one of her last public appearances a private citizen before an approaching campaign launch. “It's a wonderful feeling being here, it's kind of like a family reunion.”
Wearing green and a big smile on St. Patrick’s Day eve, Clinton entered an ornate hotel ballroom to bagpipes as guests raised pints of Guinness. There were no mentions of her emails, and the only reminder of Clinton’s presidential ambitions came from the “Irish Americans for Hillary” buttons Stella O’Leary passed out to attendees and jokes about the large number of people in the room who wanted to be Clinton’s ambassador to Dublin.
Clinton, who is not Irish, was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame for her work to bring women in to peace process that ended the decades-long conflict between Catholic and Protestants in Ireland known as The Troubles.
She made her first visit to Northern Ireland with her husband in 1995, when they stayed in the bombed-out Europe Hotel and lit Belfast’s Christmas lights in front of thousands. It was largest public gathering of more than 20 years of Troubles in the city, according to Irish Arts and Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys, who said on Monday that the first couple’s visit was “a turning point, a watershed” for peace.
Clinton worked to bring women's groups into the peace process, which were credited with helping to build lasting peace leading up to and following the Good Friday Agreement that formally ended hostilities.
“Hillary Clinton played a leading role in creating the links between the White House and leaders on the ground that would become so important during crunch time when negotiations came,” said Irish America magazine founder Niall O'Dowd, a longtime supporter and friend of the Clintons who sat next to the former first lady at the head table.
Also at her table was Gerry Adams, the leader of Ireland’s republican Sinn Féin party, and a key figure in both The Troubles and the peace process. Suspected ties to militants made it difficult for Adams to travel internationally during the conflict, but then-President Clinton intervened to give him a visa to visit the U.S. in 1993.
That was the start of a process that led to a formal peace process, led by ambassador George Mitchell, and a more informal one where Hillary Clinton played a key role.
The event highlighted themes Clinton is expected to put front and center as she prepares to launch a second presidential run expected for next month, including her husband’s presidency, her foreign policy experience, and her work as a global advocate for women.
Clinton spoke passionately about the women involved in the peace process, and said there was still more work to do in healing the wounds of sectarian conflict in Ireland. “[Women] contributed to the demand for the end to violence. They simply would not take no for answer," Clinton said. “You can’t have lasting peace and progress without people believing life will be better because of it.”
Clinton leaned on her experience in Northern Ireland as evidence of her foreign policy chops during her 2008 campaign and was knocked for overplaying her hand. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler wrote that Clinton’s claims on her role were “overstating her significance,” while columnist Margaret Carlson called them a “complete fiction,” and the campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama said Clinton’s claims of her role were a “gross overstatement.”
But with four years as secretary of state under her belt and more measured discussion of Clinton’s role, there was no dissent Monday that Clinton was was an important part of the peace process.
“She and her husband played a pivotal role,” Adams told msnbc after the event. “She’s good for Ireland.”
Adams wouldn’t let on, however, if he wanted Clinton to run for president, however. “As an Irish person, I often give off about other people interfering in our affairs, so that’s a matter for Hillary Clinton and the people of the U.S.” he said.
Clinton joins her husband in the Irish America Hall of Fame, which also includes two of her potential 2016 rivals, Joe Biden and Martin O’Malley, and msnbc’s Chris Matthews.
Unlike the other inductees, Clinton is not Irish, which led to both jokes at her expense and attempts to connect her history to Ireland. In a cover story for the most recent issue of Irish America magazine, author Megan Smolenyak, wrote that that she thought it “might be possible to ferret out a previously undetected bit of Irish” in Clinton’s ancestry, But “came up empty.” Still, “given that her three-eighths Welsh heritage makes her a Celtic cousin, of sorts,” Smolenyak wrote.
O'Dowd reached to the fact that seven out of eight of Clinton’s great grandparents were immigrants. And even Clinton herself joked that the hall of fame induction was an “honor which I could not obtain by birth.”