April 15, 1998

My husband was the first American President to travel to Northern Ireland while in office. When he and I visited there in 1995, we saw firsthand the depth of the Irish yearning for peace. At each stop, huge crowds gathered to meet America's leader -- Catholics and Protestants speaking in one voice -- urging him to help bring peace to their country.

Now, after 30 years of violence in which over 3,000 have died and from which 30,000 more bear the physical scars, Northern Ireland's leaders have repudiated their tragic history of hatred and violence and approved a series of sweeping political changes that hold out the promise of lasting peace.

We in the United States can be proud of the role our country has played in this historic moment. My husband, one of many Americans with Irish ancestors, has worked for this day for over four years.

Irish Times correspondent Conor O'Clery acknowledges the President's role: "An American President took office with Irish blood. ... He was open to the argument ... that only the United States could form a bridge ... and nudge the peace process along when it stalled."

It was only a few weeks ago, on St. Patrick's Day, that the President took the opportunity to bring all of Northern Ireland's leaders to the White House. Throughout the day, he met with them, driving home the point that they faced one of the most important moments in their history -- an opportunity for peace that might never come again in their lifetimes or in the lifetimes of their children. That evening, as we welcomed 650 visitors to the reception, I watched as they huddled in conversation in corners and over the buffet table.

Finally, last week, 22 months of negotiations ended with a marathon session that kept Bill up much of the night making at least a dozen phone calls to exhausted participants. When it was all over, he was able to say: "After a 30-year winter of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland today has the promise of a springtime of peace."

America and Northern Ireland were well-served throughout the process by the capable leadership of the chairman of the talks, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Over the past three and one-half years, he has earned not only the respect but also the trust of the participants on both sides.

History will remember the faith and courage of every participant in this extraordinary process. Each took enormous personal and political risks even to take part. They took these risks for the most unselfish of reasons -- to offer the hope of peace to their children.

Critical to the success was Dr. Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It was Mo Mowlam, suffering from the effects of chemotherapy, who broke every taboo and precedent to keep the parties engaged and the process moving toward completion.

Women have not traditionally played a role in Northern Ireland's politics, but two, Monica McWilliams, a Catholic, and Pearl Sagar, a Protestant, working together, won seats at the table and were key to building support for the agreement.

Over the years, many women have suffered for the cause of peace. I remember Joyce McCartan, whom I met in 1995, and I wish she had lived to see this day. It was Joyce who talked about how sectarian politics won't put food on the table. She said, "You can't fry flags in a frying pan."

Women such as Joyce share as much responsibility for the peace process as anyone who sat at the table last week. They put aside the politics of religion, ethnicity, race and history for the sake of their families. By their resolve and example, they have helped bring a chance for peace to Northern Ireland.

We know that extremists on both sides will not fade quietly away. The future of peace hinges on the results of voting May 22. It's up to the people to choose peace. Nonetheless, we can expect that by words, and even violent deeds, opponents may yet try to undermine this agreement.

But, as my husband has made clear, the United States will stand by the people who want peace. We will stand by the memory of those who have died. We will stand by their families and their friends. We will stand by those who, like Joyce McCartan, spent their lives fighting for peace. And we will stand by their children.