Hilary Clinton is no stranger to Northern Ireland.
In the 1990s, she was a constant companion during her presidential husband, Bill’s, doveish interventions in the protracted peace process, even switching on the Christmas lights outside Belfast City Hall in 1995.
On her first visit to Stormont as US secretary of state, in 2009, she played an important role in cajoling unionists and nationalists in an agreement on the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly.
Mrs Clinton’s latest sojourn in Northern Ireland – her eighth – was supposed to mark a high point on her “farewell tour” as she steps down as US secretary of state, an excellent photo opportunity with two former enemies, Democratic Unionist Party first minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. But events on the ground put paid to that. Instead of lauding Northern Ireland’s progress, as she had doubtless intended, Mrs Clinton found herself repeating a familiar mantra during her appearance at Stormont Castle yesterday.
“The only path forward is a peaceful democratic one. There can be no place in the new Northern Ireland for any violence,” she said in a speech that sounded as if could have been written a decade ago.
She told her audience in Belfast that all political parties “need to confront the remaining challenge of sectarian divisions, peacefully together”.
Sectarianism is certainly a problem – as the increasing numbers of “peace walls” separating working-class Protestant and Catholic communities attests – but the biggest challenge to peace in Northern Ireland is economic.
At more than 8 per cent, unemployment has more than doubled since 2008, spending cuts are beginning to bite at Stormont, and dissatisfaction with a cosy power-sharing arrangement that affords no official opposition is growing.
l Peter Geoghegan is the author of A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the new Northern Ireland (Irish Academic Press).