Almost exactly 20 years ago, on November 30, 1995 a U.S. President paid his first visit to Derry. Then, at the outset of a burgeoning peace process in Northern Ireland it is perhaps only with the luxury of two decades of hindsight that we can begin to grasp the actual importance of the fact that Bill Clinton came to Derry.
Mayor of Derry at the time was the late long-standing SDLP Councillor, John Kerr. And, it befell to John as part of year long stint as first citizen to greet President Clinton and introduce him to the people of this city.
Two decades on, John Kerr’s wife Carita has recalled the events of that day and how they help mould the political path taken in this country since then.
Carita Kerr of course in her own right is widely known in Derry and beyond both as a singer and a teacher of music, but in 1995 she was placed right in the centre of the visit to Derry by the world’s most powerful figure.
“From the beginning I didn’t consider myself to be of any importance. I just happened to be extremely lucky that John was mayor. He was very much involved, but I didn’t know a lot because there was a lot of secrecy involved for about six to nine months beforehand.
“The visit of an American president to any country is a huge event, but a visit to Ireland and Derry in particular it was momentous. I always remind people that President Clinton only visited three places-Dublin, Belfast and Derry,” said Carita.
From the outset Derry was earmarked to be outside the norms of a presidential visit. This city was the only place for example that Bill Clinton was not surrounded by bullet proof glass on the platform outside the Guildhall.
Carita said: “There was no protection of that sort needed. All he had was his huge bodyguards.
“When John suggested to him that he should meet the people, he said that he would. They started walking down the steps and the secret service nearly went bonkers. But, John assured them that everything would be fine and it was. That’s what brought the whole thing together, that Bill Clinton right in the middle of the people. He told us later that he’d never had an experience like that before and that it was very personal.”
However, Carita Kerr had to overcome a major persinal obstacle just to be able to attend the event itself. Just a few days before the arrival of Bill Clinton she underwent major surgery for breast cancer.
“I said to the consultant that I needed be out of hospital by the Wednesday. He said that I had no chance of that. I then told him there was a very important visitor coming to Derry and it began to dawn on him. He said I could go but would have to come back into hospital after the visit. He never saw me again until the following month when I had a check-up.
“When the helicopter landed at Eglinton, I felt no pain, just exhileration, and to this day, although it’s now 20 years ago, I believe it was part of my cure because I had no time for self-pity.
“When the most powerful man in the world got out of the helicopter I thoght ‘oh my God’, but John took my arm and said ‘just be yourself’. He shook hands with John and then both he and Hilary hugged me and said ‘we cannot believe you are here’.
“That set the tone. They knew what was going on and they cared about what was going on,” she said.
The general perception with regard to such visits can be cynical in terms of the actual depth of involvement by American administrations. However, Carita Kerr is absolutely convinced that Bill Clinton’s involvement here was absolutely genuine.
“On the platform at the Guildhall, he wasn’t saying words just to placate people. he meant it. By coming and speaking to the men of violence changed things. And, that day did change things. I don’t know what effect he had in Dublin and Belfast but he had a huge effect on the people of Derry. It was as almost as if he was going to be canonised,” said Carita.
The visit also afforded Carita Kerr a glimpse of what the real character of the man himself was actually like. On the stage of the Guildhall is a door in front a tiny, cramped corridor that connected the Minor Hall to the Main Hall.
Carita continued: “The four of us were in general conversation when he just put his head down on Hilary’s shoulder and said ‘I’m really tired’. I thought to myself where are the photographers now to see this. The man is just like the rest of us, he’s human. Then the door opened and he changed completely. The charisma was bouncing out of him. He was so down to earth and wanted to talk to as many people as possible.”
Twenty years on from 1995 the Clinton political dynasty is still battling on. Soon, it could be the case that Hilary Clinton will become the next U.S. President. And, that is a sentiment heartily endorsed by Carita Kerr.
“I hope very much that she is elected. I know there has been an awful lot of flack directed at her, but to me Hilary Clinton is one of the most intelligent women I have ever met and I have met her again several times. At one event she was speaking at in Belfast, John and I were invited to and John said ‘she’ll never remember us’. But, as she was being introduced to people she said, ‘John and Carita, how lovely to see you again.’ I thought wow. The woman is phenomenal and if the American people don’t elect her they are out of their minds. She’s the obvious choice.”
Describing the scenes at Guildhall Square on the day Carita said: “People were all around you and up on the walls. We knew security was very tight. They spent time even covering up manholes before hand. They cut down trees in the Diamond.
“But, despite all this there was no tension. We heard stories afterwards about things that happened. The building around the Guildhall were secured and all the windows had to have curtains down. But a woman went into the Ulster Bank heard the commotion outside and realised it was Bill Clinton and pulled a curtain back to have a look. But there were snipers trained on the windows and they had been told that if anybody twitched they were to be taken out!”
Two decades on it’s the little details of what took place in November, 1995 that still makes the presidential visit linger in Carita Kerr’s memory.
“It was more that something such as a public holiday. It was the people’s day and it was Bill Clinton who made it like that. The thing is that it was a very special day and 20 years on it still is and it will still be in 50 years time after I am long gone.”
However, whilst Carita has her thoughts on the day, it was her late husband John who was thrust into the limelight during the Clinton visit.
“It was very much the crowning moment of John’s year as Mayor,” she said.
Yet, the overarching reason behind the glitz of Bill Clinton’s visit however was a much more serious one. The President had struck up a very cordial relationship with John Hume and it was this relationship that led Bill Clinton to become intricately involved in the fledgling peace process.
Carita Kerr said: “I think this was the first step towards peace here and that he was totally serious about it. What was in Derry for Bill Clinton, except John Hume and his relationship with John Hume. He came to Derry for that reason-for the genuineness of John Hume and the vision that he had. We have had set backs of course, but I believe that if Bill Clinton had not come to Derry that day, we would not be where we are now.
“It took us out of that dreadful drudgery and conflict that hung over Derry. It’s still a very imperfect peace and what’s happening at Stormont is totally imperfect, but no longer do we have daily bombings and shootings and we are far from the dreadful state of affairs we were in.
“I had to explain to a young person recently, who didn’t believe me, that we couldn’t go into town and into a shop without being searched and the dreadful thing about that is that we got used to it.”
The ‘Journal’ asked Mrs Kerr if history will favourably record not just the visit of Bill Clinton in 1995 and what came from it later on?
She replied: “If it is not recorded favourably, then shame on the people writing history.”
Carita recalled that she and John were in Buncrana when they heard the news of the Omagh bomb.
“We just looked at one another and thought what was the Clinton visit all about? There have been so many backward steps, but we are still getting there. But, in my opinion where we are now would not have happened without his visit, because Derry was symbolic in this process. Derry has always been symbolic and Derry will always be symobolic,” she said.