On Wednesday October 10th, Queen’s University of Belfast presented the former First Lady, Senator for New York, 67th Secretary of State and former Democratic nominee for President, Hillary Rodham Clinton, with an Honorary Doctorate in Laws (LLD). The conferring of the honorary degree was due to, as the university stated, “her exceptional public service in the USA and globally, and for her outstanding contribution to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland”.
The awarding of the degree was largely welcomed by the student body of the university, with tickets for the event in the Whitla Hall being fully distributed within a day of the announcement of the conferring ceremony. The ceremony itself, began in a typical ostentatious fashion, with the academic procession, draped in their scholarly gowns, making their way from the Lanyon building through the congregation in the Whitla hall and finally up onto the stage. The Hall was draped with the university crests along either side of the balcony. The event began with remarks from Professor Adrienne Scullion, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Scullion reflected on Clinton’s contribution to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. The professor also brought to attention the contribution of Secretary Clinton in empowering women to seek public office. Scullion also referenced Clinton’s distinguished and equally divisive book, “What Happened”. This book of course, accounted for her loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Naturally, following the conferral of her honorary doctorate, Secretary Clinton gave her much anticipated remarks to those gathered in the Whitla Hall. The notion that this event was to be nonpartisan or apolitical in its messaging was quickly discarded. During her remarks, Secretary Clinton gave a stunning rebuke of the absence of power sharing in Northern Ireland, laying criticism at the feet of those in Stormont for their lack of leadership and willingness to compromise in order to give stable governance to the people of Northern Ireland.
Clinton remarked; “Two long years with no collaboration. There is no Executive to carry on the work to honour the sacrifices of all the men and women who made peace possible”. Even more remarkably, both Peter Robinson and Michelle O’Neil were seated in the front row, right in Clinton view. Nonetheless, this rebuke of the actions of Northern Irish politicians brought a resounding applause from both students and academic staff alike. These comments come mere months after the visit of her husband, President Bill Clinton, to the university to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Accord. President Clinton expressed similar sentiments to those present in the Whitla hall at the event in May.
Continuing on with her potent and politically charged remarks, Clinton referenced Brexit, lambasting Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Secretary Clinton told the congregation that “Brexit could be biggest self-inflicted wound in history”. While this equally brought an applause from many in the hall, Peter Robinson crossed his arms in protest and kept a stoned face look of disapproval at Clinton’s comments.
Asides from the political observations, Clinton also spoke fondly of her previous visits to Belfast. She reminisced of her visit as First Lady in 1995 as her husband turned on the city’s Christmas lights. That visit, she remarked, was one of her most significant visits during her time as First Lady of the United States. She also referenced a letter her husband received while he was President from an Armagh girl named Sharon Haughey. Haughey is an SDLP councillor and served as Lord Mayor of Armagh. The letter was simple yet poignant for the time; it read both sides have been hurt, both sides will have to forgive. Clinton spoke of the friendship that the two hold and how much that letter, sent at the height of the troubles, impacted both her and President Clinton. Clinton described Haughey as “a girl of violence and a women of the peace”.
To conclude the ceremony, Vice Chancellor Ian Greer thanked Secretary Clinton, and announced a Hillary Clinton Scholarship programme in the study of Law, Arts and Humanities and a similar programme for female students in the United States wishing to study here. This was a bold decision from Clinton and is to be applauded.
It is important to note that Clinton’s visit and her degree received a certain amount of negativity, particularly from socialist groups on campus who chose to protest the event, led by People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll. The small cohort of protesters also etched distasteful messages regarding Secretary Clinton on the footpaths’ surrounding the campus. However, these numbers were small and had little impact on what was an event to recognise the contribution of a remarkable lady to the advancement of reconciliation, civil liberties and freedoms not only in Northern Ireland, but also around the world. Similar sentiments of disapproval were expressed in this publication. One piece in particular, which I believe was not fitting for this historic and significant publication, suggested that the Hague would be a more fitting place for Secretary Clinton than the Whitla Hall. I would suggest that the Author should take a trip to the Falls road or the Shankill and enquire how important the Good Friday agreement has been to them, an agreement that of course guaranteed peace, and an agreement which would not have been possible but for the efforts of the Clintons and Senator George Mitchell.
Overall, the ceremony was fitting for the time and the sentiments expressed resonated with both staff and students. The need for communication and the notion that compromise should not be feared but striven towards was emphasised. While it is easy to be cynical about Clinton’s faults, it is important to recognise her contribution to peace in Northern Ireland. She played a huge part in taking the gun out of the Northern Irish politics, such peace we now often take for granted.
To conclude Clinton told us that Northern Ireland remains in her prayers; “Northern Ireland has been a symbol to people everywhere, democracy’s power to transcend divisions and deliver prosperity.” If there was one message to take from the event, Northern Ireland has achieved a lot, but there is a lot more to do.