Will US deliver fistful of dollars?
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness today start a highly important visit to the US bidding to sell Northern Ireland as the place for American business to set up. The symbolism of a DUP First Minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister working together will not be lost on their US audience as they seek to provide a clear signal that Northern Ireland has put its troubled past behind it. Chief Reporter Chris Thornton reports...
Published 03/12/2007 | 00:00
If they can make it there... well, you know how the song goes. Provided everything goes according to plan, later this week Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will be big on Broadway - with their faces up in lights, plastered across a massive television screen in Times Square.
They might scare the pigeons, but they'll reckon it was worth the effort. Success on this, the first joint trip abroad by the First and Deputy First Ministers, could mean that their fledging administration makes it here as well.
In one sense this high profile trip to New York and Washington is a kind of victory lap for the formation of the Executive last May - glad-handing with political and business leaders, being guests at the White House, and showing the Americans that the unlikeliest partnerships can work. This is the first chance they've had for it: Mr Paisley didn't make the trip to the heat of Washington in the summer because of concerns about his health.
But this visit also has a very real object: money from America.
Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness are the warm-up act for the key American investment conference due to take place in Belfast next May, weeks after the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
They hope to cash in, while they can, on the novelty factor of their unusual take on turning swords into ploughshares. One day soon the spectacle of the DUP and Sinn Fein co-operating may not raise eyebrows. After all, heads shake a little less here every day.
With Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Nigel Dodds, the First Ministers will spend three days in New York trying to convey the idea that Northern Ireland is ripe for investment.
Officials planning the trip hope their relatively smooth partnership will be a strong signal of stability - that episodes which once turned interested investors suddenly shy, like Drumcree and Whiterock, are consigned to the past.
The trip starts today with a visit to the heart of global commerce: Wall Street. The two leaders are breakfasting with the American Ireland Fund at the New York Stock Exchange.
On Tuesday, they meet New York Mike Bloomberg, which is being touted as something of a publicity coup. "Bloomberg doesn't do this," said one official. "This is buy-in at the highest level."
In between, the First Ministers have scheduled a succession of face to face meetings with people who are supposed to be influential figures in American industry.
They'll also meet Bill Flynn, a major figure in Irish America and chairman of the National Committee on Foreign Policy, a New York-based think tank.
On Wednesday, they'll make it to Times Square, although perhaps not in person. The two men are due to open trading on NASDAQ, the new technology stock exchange. This involves pressing a button that lights up the exchange's trading system like a Christmas tree, and is due to be broadcast on a giant screen in Times Square.
Shortly after arriving yesterday, Mr Paisley said the trip is a "hugely important visit for Northern Ireland".
"It provides an opportunity to engage at the highest level with US business and political leaders. The message we will be bringing with us is that we want to build on the special relationship which has long existed with the US with a view to the betterment of the people of Northern Ireland," he added.
"Northern Ireland is open for business and is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead. We have never been in a better position to boost our economic prospects but in order to do so inward investment will play a crucial part. We are here to promote our province to the leaders of business and commerce as well as civic and political representatives."
Mr McGuinness said the economy is "at the top of our priorities".
"We are here in the US not just to thank them for their help and support in the past but to impress on them that we are determined to build on the political progress that we have made by building a vibrant economy which will offer real opportunities not just for our people but for those who chose to invest in it.
"We would issue an open invitation to businesses here to come and see at first hand the attractions that we can offer in terms of the skills of our people have to offer have and the fact that we are an ideal location to assist your business with international growth."
After the NASDAQ visit, they move to Washington, and plunge into meetings on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Separate receptions will be held by members of the two houses of Congress.
The Senate reception will be hosted by Ted Kennedy - once denounced by Mr Paisley as the killer of Mary Jo Kopechne, the girl who drowned in his car at Chappaquiddick in 1969. But the First Minister is no doubt getting used to having his photograph taken with people he once denounced as killers.
Their Washington visit will also feature a crucial but low profile meeting with the Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, which is expected to touch on next year's investment conference.
The culmination of the trip is Friday's visit to the White House, where they will first speak to Steve Hadley, the head of the National Security Council, and then meet President Bush.
According to the White House, "the President looks forward to congratulating the two leaders on overcoming years of violent conflict, and for taking the historic path toward a peaceful and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland".
The White House is a fair distance from the streets of the Bogside and a hillside in Co Antrim, places where the early reputations of the First Ministers were forged. It's their new reputations that they hope will be remembered in America.