By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton will travel to Northern Ireland on Friday to lend her support to the British province's fragile peace, the frailty of which was underlined by overnight rioting on the eve of her visit and the seizure of a bomb.
Making one of her last foreign trips as U.S. Secretary of State, she visits a province transformed by the 1998 peace agreement that her husband 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 she arrives in a week that has seen three riots, the seizure of a bomb over 100 kilometers (62 miles) outside Belfast, and the arrest of four militant nationalists.
The latest riot erupted on 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.[ID:nL5E8N5EMY] Two people were arrested and four vehicles damaged. Militant nationalists also shot dead a prison officer last month.
However, Clinton's visit, during which politicians from both sides of the political divide will brief her on the peace process, will be a reminder of the huge popularity of her family in Ireland, a potential asset in attracting the Irish-American vote if Hillary 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.
"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."
Hillary Clinton travelled to Northern Ireland several times in the mid-1990s while her husband helped broker the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, his hands-on approach 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 Hillary if she needed it.
"I'm not making the assumption that Hillary's career as a front-line politician has ended," Empey said. "If you have someone in the White House with good working knowledge of the North and the peace process, that can only be good for us."
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.
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 in a speech in Dublin on Thursday 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.
The 1998 peace has mostly held, although militant nationalists have stepped up attacks in recent years, shooting dead a prison officer on his way to work last month.
As this week's violence has underlined, clashes involving nationalists, loyalists and police still break out in Belfast several times a year.
"The people who are managing the low level (of violence) at the moment could make a mistake and suddenly we would have an awful lot of trouble," said Malachi O'Doherty, a writer and veteran political commentator.
"We don't really need American help, other than investment ... That's where they will be dropping the big hints."
Clinton will also hold talks on an economy where house prices have fallen by over 50 percent since 2007. The troubles led to decades of under-investment and the province remains heavily dependent on a grant from London.
Financial services group Citigroup announced the creation of 500 jobs in Northern Ireland in 2010 weeks after Clinton held an investment conference for the province in Washington, but U.S. investment remains a tiny fraction of that in the Republic of Ireland.
(Writing by Conor Humphries; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Andrew Osborn)