By Eamonn Keyes
Christmas is a special time. And Christmas 1995 was a time that was somewhat more special than usual in Belfast.
Although they wouldn’t come to final fruition until some three years later, the first IRA and loyalist ceasefires had taken place, the troops had gone home and there was the smell of peace breaking out all over Northern Ireland.
The seal of approval was to be given on a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton, culminating in the switching on of the lights of the Christmas tree outside Belfast City Hall.
The streets were thronged with people, featuring an unsurprisingly large number of children come to see the spectacle, and also unsurprisingly, an even larger number of Neds, or spides, as we call them, who seem to abound at these events, Buckfast-fuelled glassy eyes sparkling in the twinkling lights, which also made their wispy bum-fluff moustaches look seasonally frost-covered.
We’d had Van Morrison, the grumpiest elf in the grotto, take the stage with nary a smile and play to the sixty thousand gathered there, accompanied by Brian Kennedy, possibly the best voice around then. There had been a brief hiatus as Van was en-route to the stage, as some wag shouted “Hey Van, are you still beating your wife?”
He was eventually persuaded to go on like the trouper he never was, and to be honest, it’s hard to tell when a grumpy person is a bit grumpier, and we certainly never noticed.
Bill and Hillary came on, Bill made a speech about peace and possibilities, and weighed down with the gravitas of the moment, I decided I needed a drink.
I headed for my then-favourite spot, The Joxer, to see if any of my band mates were there, as I was playing with rockers Strictly No Ballroom at the time.
It was an awkward trip as many roads were sealed off because of the crowds, and I soon found myself walking past the Europa Hotel (cue remarks about the most bombed hotel in Europe).
As I walked over the entrance to the hotel, a narrow semi-circular road, I was startled by the sound of a blaring car horn and the sudden screech of brakes as a car shot towards me at speed. I managed to leap back onto the pavement as the front shot past where I had been walking, the long, black car stopping as the rear window, blacked out, came level with me.
With a soft buzz the window came down, and there, visibly chortling, was the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. He grinned and mouthed ‘sorry’ as the car took off again swiftly, whisking him to the safety and luxury of his suite in the hotel. I had looked the most powerful man in the world in the eyes and survived.
He may have smoked but not inhaled, he may not have even had sex with that woman, but he also very nearly stopped me having several beers on a cold night when it seemed that everything in my home town was about to change.
To paraphrase Van, my mama didn’t tell me there’d be days like this….
Eamonn Keyes is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. Follow his Brief Encounters