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Investment on the menu at St Patrick's Day breakfast in America

By David Gordon

The long-standing political tradition of celebrating St Patrick’s Day far away from Ireland was fully observed by Northern Ireland’s top movers and shakers yesterday.

On his way into a promotional Northern Ireland breakfast event in Washington, Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said: “It doesn’t surprise me that everyone who is anyone is here.”

Five of the 12 Stormont Executive ministers — Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Arlene Foster, Sir Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie — were among the assembled guests in a grand Chamber of Commerce building.

Among those also rubbing shoulders with breakfast guests from the US were Stormont speaker Willie Hay and two senior Assembly officials; PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott; the head of the province’s Civil Service Bruce Robinson; Monica McWilliams, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; Duncan Morrow from the province’s Community Relations Council; Conservative Party spokesman on Northern Ireland Owen Paterson, and Tim Cooke, chief executive of National Museums Northern Ireland.

The chair and deputy chair of the Assembly’s Committee for the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, Danny Kennedy and Naomi Long, were there too, accompanied by the committee’s clerk. MLAs Dawn Purvis and Basil McCrea also attended.

The annual March 17 breakfast event is hosted by the Northern Ireland Bureau, the Stormont Executive’s official presence in Washington. Some 500 guests were present in total — the highest ever figure. The aim is to promote the province at a time when American eyes are hopefully smiling on Ireland.

Investment and tourism were central themes in the brief speeches yesterday. Invest NI had put together a 20-strong company delegation as part of a wider trade mission to the States.

Speakers included Declan Kelly, the US administration’s economic envoy to the United States.

First Minister Peter Robinson said ahead of the breakfast: “Northern Ireland punches well beyond its weight in the access that it has in the United States.

“I think there are many much larger countries that would envy the access that we have.”

His point was illustrated later in the day, with the meeting he and Mr McGuinness had with President Obama.

That came in the middle of one of the most crucial weeks the US President has faced since taking office, as he battles to get health care reforms passed.

In his speech to the breakfast, Mr Robinson spoke of “exciting times” in Northern Ireland.

“There is a tangible feeling back home of optimism on the streets.”

He also spoke of “dissidents” in the paramilitary and political fields, stating: “The stability that we are building undermines the dissidents.”

Mr McGuinness highlighted a number of the province’s tourism attractions and invited the guests: “Come and see my city. Come and walk round Derry’s walls.”

He also took full responsibility for the fact that he and the First Minister had not arrived at the event together. He said he had met a “hero” of his, the poet Paul Muldoon, adding: “He kept me late.”

Mr McGuinness also dismissed a suggestion from Mr Robinson that he had eaten two breakfasts.

Both men were wearing green ties for the breakfast. The First Minister said: “I’ve had this on many times before. Nobody’s admired it until this morning.”

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