Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Robinson and McGuinness unite in US

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, right, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are visiting the US
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson, right, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are visiting the US

Northern Ireland's political leaders will present a united front when they meet in New York to begin a week-long series of engagements.

It is the first time the First and Deputy First Ministers have been seen together since a major row erupted between unionists and nationalists over the future of a new peace centre on the site of the former Maze prison in Co Antrim.

Their five-day visit, which coincides with the resumption of the Stormont Assembly, includes meetings with outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, who is due to lead a talks initiative in Belfast aimed at resolving contentious issues not dealt with in the peace process.

Peter Robinson, who has dismissed doubts about his future as leader of the Democratic Unionists, said they would take every opportunity to promote Northern Ireland as a location for investors.

He said: "The purpose of the conference is to showcase Northern Ireland and explore the world-class opportunities that we offer. It will be a superb platform for making an international pitch and our message will be loud and clear - Northern Ireland is a great place in which to invest and to grow your business."

Mr Robinson is travelling to New York from Florida while Martin McGuinness will jet in from Belfast.

Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein have been strained throughout the difficult summer which saw scores of police officers injured when violence spilled onto the streets.

The Ministers, who will also visit the Brooklyn Navy Yard and address the the annual Irish America Wall Street 50 Awards, hope to project a more positive image of Northern Ireland and stimulate investment ahead of a major conference hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron next month.

Mr McGuinness said: "It is important we visit the United States of America in advance of the investment conference in October and ahead of the Executive party group meeting with Richard Haass next week.

"The USA has played, and continues to play, a key role in the achievement of peace and economic development in the north of Ireland. We have enjoyed a unique relationship which, in a world characterised by change, is something we value highly."

Northern Ireland has experienced one of the worst years of street disorder since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Tensions have been high since last December when loyalists, outraged at a decision to limit the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, embarked on widespread protests, some of which descended into serious rioting.

There were further outbreaks of loyalist violence over the summer months in relation to parading disputes in the city. Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir was attacked on a visit to a unionist area in north Belfast, as loyalists continue to accuse his party of waging a cultural war against their traditions.

Last month, republicans were heavily criticised by victims campaigners and unionist politicians for holding an IRA commemoration parade in Castlederg, Co Tyrone - a town which suffered significantly at the hands of paramilitaries during the Troubles.

Another indication of the fraying relations at the heart of the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein-led coalition at Stormont, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson subsequently withdrew support for a peace centre at the former Maze prison site near Lisburn.

All the events have been played out against the backdrop of the ongoing campaign by dissident republicans to de-stabilise the peace process with violence.

It is hoped the talks chaired by Dr Haass, which are due to begin at the end of this month, will find a resolution to three major issues still to be settled in the peace process: flags and emblems, parades; and dealing with the past.

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