Secretary of State says "violence is never an acceptable response" to disagreements
CNN — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned recent outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland and urged a continued commitment to peace as she met with political leaders in Belfast on Friday.
"There can be no place in Northern Ireland for any violence -- the remnants of the past must be quickly condemned," she said.
Four men were arrested Thursday night after police investigating "ongoing dissident Republican activity" found what they described as a homemade rocket that could have been used to attack an armored police vehicle when they stopped a car in the Londonderry area.
Police said they also discovered an unexploded letter bomb in a postbox in the village of Clough.
Violent disorder broke out this week after a vote by Belfast city councilors to change the policy of flying the British Union flag outside Belfast City Hall all year round, restricting it to certain designated days.
Police have come under assault in incidents in Belfast, Ballymena and Carrickfergus.
Buildings linked to the cross-community Alliance Party, which backed the flag's removal, have also been targeted.
The party said that its only lawmaker in the UK parliament at Westminster, Naomi Long, was told Thursday night to leave her home and was advised not to go to her constituency office in east Belfast on Friday after receiving a death threat.
Clinton spoke alongside First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, in east Belfast.
She recalled her first visit 17 years ago alongside then-President Bill Clinton, at a time when the first glimmers of peace were on the horizon. The couple turned on Belfast's Christmas lights on that occasion.
"Peace does take sacrifice and compromise and vigilance, day after day, and we have seen again this week that the work is not complete because we have seen violence break out again," she said.
"There will always be disagreements in democratic societies. We are experts in that in the United States ... but violence is never an acceptable response to this."
Clinton joined both Robinson and McGuinness in condemning the recent violence in the Belfast area and the threats against Long's safety.
Robinson said Clinton has been "a very good friend to Northern Ireland indeed" during its journey to a stable and lasting peace.
McGuinness agreed that Clinton has been "a true and wonderful friend to all the people of Ireland, north and south, over many, many years, and this is an opportunity for us to express our deepest thanks."
Hillary and Bill Clinton were "absolutely vital voices" during the peace process, he said, adding that the country must resist attempts by extremists on both sides "to plunge us back into the past."
Robinson and McGuinness presented Clinton with an award recognizing her contribution to Northern Ireland's peace and economic progress.
McGuinness, a former commander in the anti-British Irish Republican Army, shared a high-profile handshake with Queen Elizabeth II this summer -- a moment widely seen as a historic gesture marking a big step forward in the peace process relating to British rule of Northern Ireland.
Clinton will also attend a lunch Friday in the Titanic Belfast building, which opened this year ahead of the centennial of the ship's sinking.
Belfast is the last stop on Clinton's European tour, which began with visits to the Czech Republic and Belgium.
She also was in Dublin on Thursday for an international security conference at which she held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
The timing of Clinton's latest visit to Northern Ireland, which she has held up to other nations as an example of a divided community that has achieved a transition to peace, is seen by observers as unfortunate, given the latest unrest.
The controversial vote on the Union flag followed a summer of heightened tensions between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities. Rioting in September, which left dozens of police officers injured, was some of the worst seen by Belfast in years.
A prison officer was killed in a suspected dissident IRA attack just over a month ago, the first such attack in years. There have also been a number of arrests of suspected dissident IRA members in recent days.
On her first visit as secretary of state, in 2009, Clinton paid tribute to the efforts of Robinson, McGuinness and other political leaders in helping to secure more than a decade of peaceful progress for Northern Ireland.
The majority of the island gained independence in 1921, following two years of conflict. But six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster chose to stay in the United Kingdom, eventually becoming the country of Northern Ireland.
In the late 1960s, the conflict between mainly Protestant unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and largely Roman Catholic nationalists, who want it to be reunited with the rest of Ireland, exploded into a political and sectarian war, known as the Troubles.
The three decades of ensuing violence between loyalists and the IRA claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people, most of them north of the border. While the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 effectively ended the conflict, suspicions between Catholics and Protestants remain.
Under the terms of the landmark accord, terrorist groups on both sides dumped their weapons, and members of Sinn Fein, the political affiliate of the IRA, now work with pro-British politicians in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.