All the president's men out in force

December 1, 1995

Northern Ireland's two universities were preparing to heave a monumental sigh of relief today as President Bill Clinton was due to leave the province after his historic visit.

The president and his entourage threatened to bring chaos to the ordered corridors of Ulster academia. About 100 secret service agents were to mingle with the great and the good at a special reception at Queen's University, Belfast last night - though there was unlikely to be a repeat of the scenes at Oxford when agents went so far as to dress up as dons.

At one hush-hush meeting at Queen's to hammer out the final details on Monday, two American aides asked for some iced tea. Undaunted, the waitress asked them: "Would that be tea with ice cubes in it?"

Official university sources had not even been able to confirm, early last week, that Clinton was going to make their day. Secret service agents had to be shown a book marking Queen's 150th anniversary before it could be presented to the president. The university also attempted to win hearts and influence the press corps by producing baseball caps for the White House press team.

The emphasis was on parity of esteem as Clinton demonstrated official United States neutrality by planning to visit the University of Ulster campus in mainly Catholic Derry and Queen's with its strong, Protestant unionist roots in his 24- hour whistle-stop tour.

At the Guildhall in Derry the president was due to inaugurate a chair in peace studies dedicated to former speaker and renowned Irish-American Tip O'Neill at a ceremony attended by members of O'Neill's family.

In preparation a new toilet and wash basin had to be installed for the exclusive use of the president. One local reporter quipped: "He must have heard this was the city of the Bogside."

The universities could reveal no details of the visit until they were cleared by the White House, while the White House was waiting for the go-ahead from the RUC. An unprecedented 3,000 police officers were assigned to what was called Operation Venice, with no one apparently realising the grim echo of Death in Venice.

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