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Northern Ireland

'Save the peace', pleads Bill Clinton as he receives the freedom of Belfast

Bill Clinton and George Mitchell after they received the Freedom of the City of Belfast at a ceremony in Ulster Hall yesterday
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Former US President Bill Clinton made a heartfelt plea to "save the peace" as he and Senator George Mitchell accepted the Freedom of Belfast at a ceremony on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement yesterday.

The ceremony, which took place in the Ulster Hall, celebrated peace and included readings of the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney's poetry and music from Londonderry choir Codetta.

The US politicians became the 83rd and 84th recipients of the Freedom of the City in recognition of their services to peace, and for the role they played in helping to negotiate the 1998 accord.

Addressing the crowd, Mr Clinton urged every citizen to honour their "obligation" to "do something now to preserve what is good and decent, not just the peace, but freedom, democracy, shared opportunities".

He added: "Thank you for the Freedom of the City, thank you for giving freedom to the children of this city. Do not give up the freedom that the peace agreement has brought.

"Honour this 20th anniversary. Time happens to everyone. There are no permanent victories in politics, there are no permanent victories in life.

"The only thing certain is that the river of time will flow.

"Make the right decision. Save the peace. Tomorrow start claiming the freedom of the city for every child yet unborn."

Mr Clinton said that he had fallen in love with Belfast.

"We were still in the beginning of this whole process in 1995 when I was invited here to flip on the Christmas tree," he recalled.

"I was terrified that the lights would short out and the whole thing would be a metaphor for failure. But in front of tens of thousands of people who wanted a different tomorrow, the lights came on.

"The lights came on in Belfast and the lights stayed on. Through thick and thin and ups and downs and setback and disagreements, governments in and out of Stormont.

"For 20 years the lights have stayed on. I am glad to finally have the freedom of a place which I did my small part to make free."

Mr Clinton acknowledged concerns caused by the Stormont stalemate and Brexit, and said he had been "moved" by Monday's statement by loyalist terror groups that they would support the rule of law, saying it "sounded sincere to me".

He said he would "always be grateful I came to Belfast when peace had been made but the city was still troubled".

He added: "When wise and good and decent people actually had to make a decision to do the right thing, to be the right sort of person, to give children the right sort of future.

"The least George and I can do with our freedom is to plead with you to give the same gift to generations yet to come. Receiving the Freedom of the City - especially alongside Senator George Mitchell - is an honour I'll cherish as long as I live.

"The honour of the peace, however, belongs to all the people of Northern Ireland, including the women and young people who pushed to end the violence, the courageous leaders who took the risks to forge peace, and all those who have strengthened it since."

Mr Mitchell, who chaired three sets of talks in Northern Ireland over a five-year period before serving as chancellor of Queen's University for 10 years, added: "Thanks to the courage, strength and vision of the then-political leaders of NI, who are the real heroes of the process, we were able to get an agreement. I'm honoured by this award.

"A large part of my heart and my emotions will always be here with you, the people of Northern Ireland."

Mr Mitchell told the Belfast Telegraph he was "not frustrated" by the Stormont impasse, and hoped today's political leaders would "deal with the current problems in the same manner and spirit that the leaders of 1998 did, with mutual respect and vision of what's best for the whole of society".

He added: "It's a mistake to think that any agreement can solve for all-time every problem in a society. People change, societies change, new problems arise.

"And you have to meet them with the same spirit of cooperation and effort that occurred in 1998.

"It's up to the political leaders to find a way to get the Assembly up and running and bring back self-government that the people so badly need and want."

Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister said she was "absolutely delighted" to mark the 20th anniversary and the "very significant contribution" of President Clinton and Senator Mitchell in peace-building.

Belfast Telegraph

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Bill Clinton and George Mitchell after they received the Freedom of the City of Belfast at a ceremony in Ulster Hall yesterday

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Mr Clinton address the audience

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Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister with former President Bill Clinton, Senator George Mitchell, Michael Long, Tim Attwood and Suzanne Wylie

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Nuala McAllister takes a selfie of the group, including pupil Elena Gourley, who read a poem