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Clinton condemns violence, revisits family legacy in trip to Belfast

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Friday with Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, right, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, left, at Stormont Castle in Belfast on Friday.

Updated at 10:25 a.m. ET: BELFAST — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday condemned a wave of street violence in Northern Ireland, saying it showed the peace process she has long supported in the British province was not yet complete.

Making one of her last foreign trips in her current job, she visited a province transformed by the 1998 peace agreement that her husband Bill Clinton helped bring about in what was regarded as one of the greatest successes of his presidency.

But Northern Ireland remains riven by sectarian tensions and Clinton arrived in a week that has seen three riots, the seizure of a bomb over 62 miles outside Belfast, and the arrest of four militant nationalists.

The latest riot erupted Thursday night when a policeman was injured after protesters hurled missiles to vent their anger against nationalist councilors who voted to remove the British flag atop Belfast City Hall.

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Police said Friday that four men were arrested after a "viable bomb" was recovered from a car in a nationalist area of Derry overnight. A letter bomb was also found in a County Down postbox with the capacity "to kill or cause serious injury."

"It has been a sad reminder unfortunately that despite how hardy the peace has been, there are still those who not only would test it but try to destroy it," Clinton said.

"I really commend the leaders and citizens who have condemned the violence— and I join them in condemning it — to remind us all that peace comes through dialogue and debate, not violence," she added.

Important for 2016?
However, Clinton's visit, during which politicians from both sides of the political divide briefed her on the peace process, was a reminder of the huge popularity of her family in Ireland, a potential asset in attracting the Irish-American vote if Clinton decided to run for the U.S. presidency in 2016.

The province has suffered one of the world's worst property market crashes and its leaders are hoping for the kind of U.S. foreign investment that has transformed the rest of Ireland.

"Our need is more economic now than political," said Reg Empey, Chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, who was a senior figure in the peace process.

Cops hurt as British unionist protesters try to storm Belfast City Hall in flag spat

"But we also have to be aware that there is still a degree of volatility ... and in those circumstances I think we should make sure we keep the relationship going," he said.

Peace process
Hillary Clinton traveled to Northern Ireland several times in the mid-1990s while her husband helped broker the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. His hands-on approach was widely recognized as crucial at moments when the agreement looked like crumbling.

Bill Clinton's work helped win over the Irish vote during his re-election campaign in 1996 and his popularity among Irish-Americans could rub off on his wife if she needed it.

Clinton on Thursday told journalists in Dublin she was "too focused on what I'm doing" to think about a run for the presidency and declined to comment on U.S. newspaper reports that her husband may be appointed as Washington's next ambassador to the Republic of Ireland.

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Personal ties
As first lady, Clinton lent support to pro-peace women's groups in Northern Ireland and visited people wounded in the 1998 Omagh bombing, the deadliest attack in three decades of violence commonly known as the "Troubles."

At least 3,600 people were killed during that time as Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland fought British security forces and mainly Protestant Loyalists determined to remain part of the United Kingdom.

"The lessons learned here in Ireland about how to build peace could be of great use to other peoples and nations," Clinton said Thursday in a speech in Dublin in which she recalled a meeting between Catholic and Protestant women in Belfast in the 1990s.

"There are so many more ties that bind us than divide us, and that is what has motivated me over many years now," she said.

NBC News' Catherine Chomiak and Reuters contributed to this report.

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