What is it about Hillary Clinton and conflict zones?
The secretary of State committed a major gaffe last year by giving a largely fictional account of a dangerous landing under gunfire on a Bosnian airstrip. Now, doubts have arisen over comments she made this week relating to Northern Ireland.
Although the new episode is unquestionably both less clear-cut and less significant than the Bosnia fiasco, it nonetheless has the potential to resurrect questions about whether Clinton has a tendency to overdramatize her foreign endeavors.
Her description seemed to illustrate just how far Northern Ireland had come from the first, fragile days of its peace process. The only problem is that it isn’t quite true.
In a speech to members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday, Clinton talked about her first visit to Belfast, which she made with her husband in November 1995. “We stayed at the Europa Hotel, as I have again this time, even though then there were sections boarded up because of damage from bombs,” she said.
The description seemed to illustrate just how far Northern Ireland had come from the first, fragile days of its peace process, and how long Mrs. Clinton had been a witness to its travails. The only problem is that it isn’t quite true, according to both the hotel’s manager at the time and the managing director of its parent company, who spoke independently of each other to The Daily Beast.
Howard Hastings, the managing director of Hastings Hotels, which owns the Europa, said that the secretary of State’s description was “not strictly accurate.” John Toner, the hotel’s general manager at the time of the Clinton visit, was more blunt, “I don’t know where she’s getting that from,” he said.
Hastings and Toner both noted that the last explosion to damage the hotel—which was once, infamously, the most bombed in Europe—occurred in May 1993, some two-and-a-half years before the Clinton visit. Hastings Hotels, a Northern Ireland group founded by Howard Hastings’ father, Sir William, bought it shortly afterward. A multimillion-dollar refurbishment followed and the hotel reopened in February 1994.
Toner and Hastings say that the then-first lady may have been confused by the fact that there was some work going on around the time of her visit, 21 months after the re-opening. But both men insisted that this work was, in Hastings’ words, the kind of “repair and refurbishment” commonplace at any hotel undergoing an overhaul, and was “not because of a recent bombing.”
Contemporaneous press accounts seem to give further credence to the idea that the hotel was in better shape than the secretary of State’s war-scarred description this week suggested. A Los Angeles Times report published on November 28, 1995, on the cusp of the presidential visit, referred to “a new beauty parlor in the oft-bombed but now refurbished Europa Hotel.” A story by the legendary, and now-deceased, New York Times reporter R.W. ‘Johnny’ Apple, published on December 1, 1995, mentioned that “the often-bombed Europa Hotel, where Mr. Clinton stayed tonight, has been refurbished.”
Neither of the men connected with the hotel has any ax to grind with the Clintons. The room in which the then-president and first lady stayed during their visit still bears the name “The Clinton Suite.” Toner said he was “impressed with [Hillary Clinton’s] genuine concern and interest in Northern Ireland” in a brief, private conversation with her at the time.
P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, insisted that there was nothing inaccurate in Clinton’s statement this week. “There was a renovation in progress that stemmed from the bombing and a change in ownership of the hotel. The secretary of State was not suggesting she was dodging bombs when she arrived at the hotel,” he said, recalling the May 1993 bombing. “We’ve talked to two people who were with the Clintons in 1995, and they say they were shown an area that was still restricted, where the bombing had been.”
Hastings said the only restrictions on access to parts of the hotel during the time of the Clinton visit would have been imposed by the presidential security team. But he said it had nothing to do with any bomb damage, and added that there were no “rooms with holes in the walls or no glass in the windows or anything like that.”
Clinton’s past accounts of her involvement in Northern Ireland have been the subject of heated debate. During her bid for the presidency last year, she told NPR that she had been “instrumental” in the peace process. She also claimed during a CNN interview that “I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland.”
Critics accused her of exaggerating her role, insisting that her involvement had been largely symbolic. The heavy lifting, they claimed, was done by her husband and by George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority Leader who, as U.S. Special Envoy, chaired the multiparty talks that eventually led to the 1998 peace accord known as the Good Friday Agreement.
David Trimble, who signed up to the agreement as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, told London’s Daily Telegraph last year that Hillary Clinton was a “wee bit silly” for inflating her involvement. “I don’t want to rain on the thing for her, but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player,” he added.
That flap was superseded by the Bosnian story. In March 2008, then-candidate Clinton told a dramatic tale of arriving in Tuzla 12 years earlier. She landed “under sniper fire,” she said, and her party “just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
News footage from the day was duly unearthed, showing no evidence of sniper fire and no apparent hurry to get Clinton or her daughter, Chelsea, who was accompanying her, to a less-exposed location.
“I made a mistake. That happens,” Clinton said during the resultant furor. “It proves I’m human—which, you know, for some people is a revelation.”
Niall Stanage is a New York-based, Irish-born journalist and the author of Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign (Liberties Press, Dublin).