Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why Northern Ireland just doesn't matter like it used to in America

President Obama enjoys the craic in an Irish pub, but his interest in Northern Ireland is less than that of some of his predecessors.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on St. Patrick's Day at the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 17, 2011.

Let's not kid ourselves: the big event on St Patrick's Day in Washington this year will be the US president's meeting with Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, on the lawn of the White House to receive a ceremonial bowl of shamrock.

I say St Patrick's Day, but it will happen on March 14, because Congress breaks up on March 17 and that wouldn't suit the diary.

The main speculation will be around whether a new Dublin ambassador is appointed to replace Dan Rooney, who returned home to Pittsburgh at the end of 2012.

Northern Ireland is not such a big part of events as it once was. Unlike Enda Kenny, our guys are not guaranteed to meet Barack Obama. He may drop by when Joe Biden, the Veep, is hosting them, but then again he may not.

This year, there is caution around Northern Ireland.

As Richard Haass said when he came here to help sort out the issues of flags, parading and the past, most of his friends in America expressed surprise, because they thought the problem had already been solved.

Dr Haass soon found out it wasn't. Bill Clinton referred to the Haass talks when he spoke at Londonderry's Guildhall yesterday, when he urged us to "finish the job".

But if it isn't such a big deal for the Americans, it certainly is a big deal for us. The level of access we enjoy is still remarkable for a region of 1.8m people.

And the Americans clearly wish us well, even if our habit of taking two steps forward and one step back is a little disconcerting.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will make the most of it. They jet off to Los Angeles on Saturday and begin a hectic five-day programme on Monday.

There are several private meetings with investors, under wraps for now, but hopefully producing some leads. In LA, the main public event is around Cinemagic, which encourages young people here to participate in film, television and digital technologies.

In San Francisco the next day, our guys will open a new Invest Northern Ireland office. This is all very positive stuff, which facilitates further linkages to the creative industries in the enter- tainment capital of the world.

Yet we must be realistic; our attractions are not on quite the same scale as the Irish Republic, which offers guaranteed political stability, tax breaks and plenty of direct, long-haul flights to boot. Bill Clinton, for instance, flew into Dublin.

Joe Biden, Washington's point man on Ireland, will give the keynote speech at the American Ireland dinner on Thursday night, after Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness have spent the day giving and receiving briefings to prepare the ground.

Mr Biden's speech provides an opportunity to give us a rap on the knuckles, or a pat on the head – probably both.

It will, most likely, be encouraging in tone, but how positive can you be when the latest news from Northern Ireland has been a threat by the First Minister to resign? Mr Biden's formal meeting with our two ministers is another event which will be parsed.

Will it be in the White House (prime location) with Mr Obama in attendance, or will it be lower-profile in one of Mr Biden's other offices on Capitol Hill, or the Eisenhower Building?

The White House won't talk up our problems; they present us an example to other conflict zones. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't notice the cracks appearing at Stormont.

And it doesn't mean that corporate America doesn't make cold, hard comparisons with the Republic when considering a base in Ireland.

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