By Emmanuel Touhey - 05/21/13 11:24 PM EDT
Sharon Haughey never set out to be lord mayor of her hometown — the city of Armagh in Northern Ireland. But a letter to a U.S. president changed that.
In 1995, a 14-year-old Haughey wrote to then-President Clinton about the violence in her country.
She did not hear back from the White House. Months passed.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Clinton White House was busy laying the groundwork for a historic trip to Northern Ireland — the first ever of a sitting U.S. president — as part of a multi-pronged approach to jump-starting peace talks between the various factions.
Clinton arrived in Belfast on Nov. 30 for a two-day visit that would also take him to Dublin and London. Thousands turned out to greet him at each stop, including at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in front of Belfast’s City Hall that evening.
And, for Haughey, there was a special holiday surprise in store.
It turns out Clinton had read Haughey’s letter and was so moved by it that he recited part of it to the crowds gathered that night.
“Both sides have been hurt. Both sides will have to forgive,” the president quoted Haughey.
Forty miles away, Haughey sat with her family watching the live TV coverage.
“I couldn’t believe it when President Clinton started quoting my letter when he turned on the Christmas tree lights in Belfast. It was so surreal,” Haughey said.
“I never thought he would actually get to see my letter, never mind tell the world about it.”
“President Clinton gave me a platform to make my voice heard. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a very ordinary schoolgirl,” she noted.
Haughey didn’t get to meet Clinton on that occasion. However, three years later, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the White House contacted her and asked her if she would like to introduce the president at a peace rally in her hometown.
On his return trip, Clinton recalled how her letter affected him. “I’ll never forget the letter she wrote to me. … It was so simple, so profound,” he said at the time.
It was a dream come true for the then-17-year-old. But Haughey was not one to rest on her laurels.
“I decided after that, that I could either enjoy my moment in the limelight, or I could actually play my part in helping to build the Ireland that I wanted, and that was what I choose.”
And it wouldn’t be the last of her involvement with the Clintons.
In 2003, Haughey applied successfully for a place in the much-coveted Washington Ireland Program (WIP), which places students from all over Ireland in internships in Washington, D.C. For a college student with ambition, it was the next logical step.
And she got assigned to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Ten years later, Haughey reflected on the impact of that experience on her career.
“It gave me a real insight into working in politics full time and an insight into what it’s like for a woman in politics watching Hillary Clinton so closely. … I believe WIP was a great experience and confirmed my desire to get involved in elected politics,” she said.
As Haughey prepares to step down in June and embark on the next chapter of her political career, 30 more college students from Ireland will follow in her footsteps and travel to the U.S. for their summer internships in Washington.
Fourteen of the students are from the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, and 16 hail from the Irish Republic.