London, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton today put forward a five-point peace agenda for the proposed new assembly in Northern Ireland which aims to bring together Catholics and Protestants to end 30 years of sectarian violence.
Clinton, who earlier arrived in the capital, Belfast, from Moscow, spoke to community leaders from both sides of the religious divide. Clinton, accompanied by wife Hillary, was given a standing ovation
Clinton said the new assembly, which aims to cement the peace process in the British-ruled province, must be guided in a spirit of courage and reconciliation, and holds the key to the future:
"From here on the destiny of Northern Ireland is in the hands of its people and its representatives. This new assembly has the opportunity and the obligation to forge the future."
Clinton said Catholic and Protestant paramilitary forces must hand in the terrorist weapons that have claimed more than 3,400 lives since the present violence erupted in 1969.
Hopes have risen of a breakthrough over the decommissioning of bombs and guns since a statement Tuesday by Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams that "violence must be a thing of the past."
Sinn Fein is the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), which has fought a long terrorist war aimed at driving the British out of Northern Ireland and uniting the province with the mainly Catholic Irish Republic to the south.
Clinton also said Northern Ireland's warring factions must end "street justice" against each other -- a reference to the shooting and maiming of suspected terrorist activists by both sides.
Clinton said the enforcement of the law in Northern Ireland must be left to its elected representatives, the courts and the police.
But Clinton also said that Northern Ireland needs to reform its police force "so that it earns the confidence and respect of all the people." The mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary has long been accused of taking sides against the minority Catholics.
Clinton, a strong supporter of the peace process, who helped start the process of reconciliation on his last visit three years ago, also called for an early release of prisoners convicted of terror offenses, but only if their organizations have abandoned violence.
Later today, Clinton is to go with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the small market town of Omagh, west of Belfast, where 28 people, mostly women and children, were killed in a terrorist bomb last month. The responsibility was claimed by a small IRA splinter group which opposes the peace process, saying it betrays the long-time nationalist goal of a united Ireland.
In his remarks, Clinton called for the formation of an executive council reflecting all strands of opinion and creation of a fair society where every citizen receives equal protection and equal treatment.
The present round of troubles in Northern Ireland erupted in the late 1960s after Catholics, who are outnumbered 2-1, complained that their civil rights were violated by Protestants.
Clinton expressed hope that community leaders in Northern Ireland are now leading the province from what he called "the deep freeze of despair to the sunlight of peace."
"For 30 long years the troubles took a terrible toll. Too many people died, too many families grieved. Every family was denied the blessing of a normal life by the constant fear that a simple trip to the store could be devastated by bombs and bullets, in the daily disruption of road blocks, and the presence of armed soldiers always on patrol."
Clinton's said the U.S. will do it everything it can to back the peace process, in particular by investing in the province.
The U.S. is the single largest investor and the U.S. Congress has voted $100 million in aid over the past five years.
Clinton paid tribute to former U.S. Senator, George Mitchell, who has been mediating between the rival communities.
But Clinton said that while Northern Ireland "can count on America," its future is up to its own people who need to seize the chance for peace "which won't come again in their own lifetime."