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By Mario Ledwith and Michael Seamark
PUBLISHED: 06:46 EST, 7 December 2012 | UPDATED: 17:24 EST, 7 December 2012
Greeting: Mrs Clninton is welcomed to Belfast with a kiss on the cheek from Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness
If Hillary Clinton had any misgivings about exchanging a kiss and a handshake with a man who used to be known as the Butcher of Bogside, she did a very good job of hiding them.
But then, she is the world’s most senior diplomat.
The US Secretary of State was all smiles as she met former IRA terrorist and Ulster’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness when she arrived in Belfast for her eighth visit to the province.
She also received a warm welcome from first minister Peter Robinson.
But what will probably be one of her
last foreign trips as Secretary of State – she steps down in the New
Year – was overshadowed by heightened tensions in Northern Ireland.
Feelings have been running high since restrictions were imposed on flying the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall.
Mrs Clinton said: ‘There will always
be disagreement in democratic societies, but violence is never an
acceptable response. All need to confront the remaining challenge of
sectarian divisions, peacefully together.’
Only hours before she arrived, two bombs were found and a death threat issued against East Belfast MP Naomi Long.
The discovery of the potentially deadly devices follows a week of rising sectarian tensions in the country.
The U.S. Secretary of State met Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont Castle, Belfast.
A car was stopped in Derry this morning and police intercepted an explosive device they believed was to be planted by dissident republicans
Only hours later a letter bomb was found at a postbox in a loyalist area of Co Down, raising the possibility that paramilitaries were hoping to capitalise on the publicity of Mrs Clinton's visit.
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Friendly handshake: As one of the world's most senior diplomat, Mrs Clinton received a warm welcome on one of her last foreign trips as Secretary of State
All smiles: The US Secretary of State with Mr McGuinness (left) and first minister Peter Robinson when she arrived for her eighth visit to the province
Tensions have been rising in the country over the last few days after a controversial vote to restrict the number of days per year on which the Union flag is flown on Belfast City Hall.
Mrs Clinton used a speech at Stormont to say that violence is 'never an acceptable response to disagreements'.
Her discussions with Northern Ireland's leaders were meant to centre on the economy and the peace process but were overshadowed by loyalist protests in the country and the discovery of the car bomb.
The Secretary of State praised the unionist and nationalist leaders flanking her and added that parties needed to 'confront the remaining challenge of sectarian divisions, peacefully together'.
Her call came after East Belfast MP Naomi Long received a death threat as a result of recent tensions, as she was warned by police to stay away from her home and constituency office.
Laughter: The U.S. Secretary of State meets with Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson, right, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, left, at Stormont Castle, Belfast
Peace process: The U.S Secretary of State has long been involved with Northern Ireland, having visited the country on eight occasions. Her usband Bill was a key player on the peace process
Detectives are questioning four men about the discovery of the bomb in Derry's Creggan estate last night.
Security chiefs believe dissident republicans opposed to the peace process were planning an attack in the centre of the city, which is next year's inaugural UK City of Culture.
The discovery of the letter bomb at Clough, a loyalist area near Newcastle, Co Down, was disclosed by police two hours before Mrs Clinton's arrival.
It was also found last night when officers were alerted to suspicious activity near a postbox.
Mrs Clinton's husband, former US president Bill, was a key player in the peace process during the 1990s making several visits and encouraging negotiations between nationalists and unionists.
Mrs Clinton has been to Northern Ireland on eight occasions before and will have been well advised before her arrival in Belfast today about increasing loyalist anger on the streets because of the decision by the city council to limit the flying of the Union flag at City Hall.
This is her second visit as secretary of state, with the last in 2009 when she encouraged the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
The discovery of another dissident republican bomb in Derry is the latest in a line of failed attacks in the area.
Relaxed: Despite the recent tensions in the country and the discovery of the explosive devices, both Mrs Clinton and First minister Peter Robinson appeared relaxed as they met in Stormont, Belfast
Visit: The U.S. Secretary of State would have been warned about recent sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland. She had been attending a conference in Dublin
Pat Ramsey, an SDLP Northern Ireland assembly member, said people in his home city were angry at the disruption caused by this latest bomb alert.
He said: 'Once again, the people of the Creggan are the victims of disruption, distress and anger. People are genuinely fed-up with this.
'People are first of all looking forward to Christmas with their families and then, next year, to the City of Culture. And this may have something to do with it because the dissidents have consistently said we will not have anything resembling normality during the UK City of Culture year.
'It was freezing cold last night and there were people in their 80s and 90s who were moved from their home. Some forgot medication.
He added: 'The people they tell us they represent are the people who are being disrupted. This has to stop.
'Thank God the police found the bomb and the people of this city or somewhere else are not waking up to destruction today.'
Plea for calm: Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson has appealed for loyalists to suspend all street protests over the Union flag decision
Dissident republicans, who were behind the murder of prison officer David Black last month, have been particularly active in the Londonderry area in recent years.
They are opposed to the UK City of Culture status that has been bestowed on the city for next year.
Attempts have been made to blow up the City of Culture offices on a number of occasions because it is seen as a highly symbolic target.
In March, dissidents tried to bomb Derry Courthouse and there have been attacks on police stations in the city.
They have also been responsible for a number of murders and have forced young men to leave Derry in disputes about drug-dealing in the area.
Following the controversial flag vote, loyalists have been holding protests across the country to show their opposition to the decision to restrict the number of days the flag is flown.
Councillors from the non-sectarian Alliance Party have been intimidated and in one case the party's offices were destroyed by fire.
Stand-off: Protestors wrapped in Union flags confront police
Confrontation: Violence and protests has sparked in Northern Ireland over the last few daysVIDEO: Clinton condemns violence in Northern Ireland as car bomb is found in Derry