Don's Diary

December 15, 1995

Monday. An early meeting with our printers to rearrange the layout for the vice chancellor's annual report. This is due to the impending visit of United States President Bill Clinton to the Queen's University Belfast campus on Thursday evening. The immediate problem is to get a university photographer into the reception to accompany those from the White House and the Northern Ireland Office.

The next problem is to try to place a photograph of Clinton in a spread which already has two important pictures: the Queen and Irish President Mary Robinson at a reception for graduates of Queen's, Cork and Galway (celebrating their 150th anniversary this year); and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, Queen's graduate and former staff member. . . editing a magazine can be great fun.

Tuesday. All hands on deck. The morning is spent finalising 500 press packs for the visiting international media, and taking them to the designated media centre, the cavernous King's Hall in south Belfast. Back to the office to sign off an internal newsletter listing academic promotions. Then a query from a Ugandan bishop who wants to establish a technological link between Queen's and a project in his diocese.

More consultations with Clinton's advance team about arrangements for the visit. Plans seem to change daily, but we press ahead with building a platform for the media outside the Whitla hall, where Clinton will speak to politicians, and business and community leaders. In the hall there is a buzz of activity as workmen build an elaborate podium for the president, and yet another platform for the media.

Wednesday. 8am breakfast with the international press. Bleary eyed hacks, civil servants and US press aides munch their way through an "Ulster Fry" of bacon, eggs and soda bread. Still no sign of the special pass for the university photographer. When I was a journalist I covered similar visits to Ireland by President Reagan and the Pope. Now I prefer to leave nothing to chance.

My press officer informs me that a news event about developments in cancer studies will take place on the day of Clinton's visit. Can we not hold it back? No, the organiser wants to go ahead. In the end it received good coverage.

A final tour of the Whitla hall with the US press and security chiefs, plus staff from the Northern Ireland Information Service. Outside several bushes are trimmed to provide a better view for the television cameras of the presidential cavalcade sweeping into the campus and past the floodlit building.

Thursday. The great day dawns. The information office has been designated a "Red Zone" as it overlooks the Whitla hall. My staff and I pass through a cordon of police who frisk us and ask to see ID cards. During the morning I am frisked going to and from the toilet.

The main campus has been closed from lunchtime because of security and traffic restrictions. The information office phones are curiously quiet as the entire population shares in president Clinton's triumphal visit to Belfast and Derry, either directly or by watching television. At 6pm catering staff provide us with a snack for the long night ahead.

It is bitterly cold as we wait for the president, who is already delayed at the City hall, where he switches on the Christmas lights in front of a tumultuous mass of people. Meanwhile the great and good file in to await the president, while in the cold outside tempers fray between some of the media and the US handlers.

The president arrives late at Queen's and keeps the audience waiting while he has private and separate meetings with the Reverend Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. Eventually Clinton bounds on stage with the ever-elegant Hillary, and shows again why he is one of the best communicators in the business. He also announces a special Fulbright fellowship in conflict studies at Queen's. Warm applause.

Despite his punishing schedule he still has the energy to shake hands with scores of people. Backstage, vice chancellor Sir Gordon Beveridge presents him with a copy of Queen's history, Degrees of Excellence.

At 10.45pm his huge black motorcade snakes out of the campus. Former Queen's law lecturer David Trimble (now leader of the Ulster Unionists) is riding in the presidential limousine. I try unsuccessfully to hail a taxi, and eventually limp home, exhausted, with the aid of public transport.

Friday. The morning after. Still tired because of the sheer nervous energy required for the visit. The president's senior staff member has already jetted off at 7am for Madrid, where Clinton was due at the weekend, after visiting his Bosnia-bound troops in Germany.

Back to bread and butter issues - there is a vice chancellor's speech to be drafted for a civic dinner next week, and an internal magazine to be produced. And I haven't forgotten the vice chancellor's report, with the picture of Clinton taken by our own photographer who was allowed into the Whitla hall after all. It has been an exhilarating week but one presidential visit in a working lifetime is enough. Now for the weekend, and time to read all the papers to find out what really happened outside Queen's. There is a big world beyond every university.

Information director and head of information services, Queen's University of Belfast.

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