Everything was checked for Chinese politician's visit... even the temperature of her tea
Not since President Bill Clinton and his Secret Service minders swept up the Prince of Wales Avenue nearly 14 years ago has there been an arrival quite like it at Stormont as the most powerful woman in the east came to the east of Belfast last night to meet the men — and women — in power at the home of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Madame Liu Yandong, the highest ranking female politician in China’s Communist Party, certainly wasn’t short of company or security as, with eight PSNI motorcycle outriders, her cavalcade of eight cars and jeeps snaked up to the west door of Stormont with a police helicopter hovering above.
The preparations for her visit had been going on for weeks.
A Stormont source revealed: “All of the movements of Madame Liu Yandong have been carefully co-ordinated in advance.
“The Chinese authorities have had a team of 300-400 people here for several days checking out every inch of every location that she will visit. They have checked everything, right down to the temperature of her tea.”
And as dozens of stern-faced Chinese officials, who were said to have included her own highly-trained protection team, followed her, she stopped just long enough at the Stormont entrance for the Speaker of the Assembly, William Hay, to greet her. In what language, we don’t know.
But that wasn’t the sum total of Madame Liu’s party.
The convoy was followed by a bus with dozens more of her staff and a quick headcount suggested she may have had upwards of 70 with her for the State visit which politicians here are hoping will result in closer ties between Northern Ireland and China.
That’s why Stormont has rolled out the red carpet for the only woman on China’s 22-member Politburo, a politician tipped for even higher office in a reshuffle later in the year.
For the woman who’s opening a Confuscius Institute at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown, it was more akin to confusion, the evening that red carpet was put down at Belfast International Airport for the first time since Bill Clinton’s trip.
As Madame Liu’s Air China flight touched down, a large number of anything-but-inscrutable Chinese reporters and camera crews ignored the pleadings from Northern Ireland Office staff for them to stay behind official lines and it took some time to calm the frenzied visitors.
Confusion, too, at Stormont — but at least it brought a smile to the faces of the waiting Chinese reporters.
For as champion piper Ashley McMichael from the award-winning Field Marshal Montgomery band was cued to start up a tuneful welcome, it quickly became apparent he’d peaked too soon as the first people to get out of official-looking cars were Chief Constable Matt Baggott and then junior minister Jonathan Bell.
The Northern Ireland piper of the year for 2011 manfully managed to keep on playing a series of six-eight marches, including Cameron McFadyen, until the real guest of honour did appear 10 minutes later.
Inside Stormont, Madame Liu and her ever-growing band of colleagues were hurried up the Stormont stairs to the Members Dining room for the pleasantries and the photographs.
The smiling VIPs from China sat on one side with the smiling Executive ministers from Northern Ireland opposite them.
At the top of the room a smiling Madame Liu sat between, but not beside a smiling Peter Robinson and a smiling Martin McGuinness — too far apart for a good picture, according to local photographers, who thought it best not to ask the woman to cosy up to the Executive leaders.
Then, it was down to the serious business of the first phase of the three-day visit to strengthen the links between east and west.
Business leaders from Northern Ireland were also on hand at a reception including representatives of exporters who already send £100m worth of goods to China
every year. With a population of over 1.3 billion and the fastest expanding economy on the planet, the potential is clearly immense.
And one of the guests at Stormont knew that only too well.
David Dobbin, chief executive of United Dairy Farmers, ran businesses in China for three years in China’s quickest growing city, Kunsan, in the province where Madame Liu comes from.
Mr Dobbin, who said Northern Ireland is currently exporting up to £5m of dairy products to China every year, added that it was difficult to over-estimate the importance of the visit from leaders of a country where comparatively few people have ever heard of Ireland, North or South.
“The more the Chinese come to see us the better,” he said.
“The Republic recently hosted a State visit, too. It’s always handy to know someone in government over there.
“The Chinese place great value in relationships,” added Mr Dobbin, who was a guest of the Chinese government at the handover of Hong Kong.
Invest Northern Ireland officials also believe that Madame Liu’s initiative will pave the way for more companies from here to set up shop in China, just like camera manufacturer Andor Technology.
Its boss Conor Walsh said that people from here must respect Chinese ways and understand the culture of the country.
Perhaps for that reason, and not wanting to snap at the hand that might one day feed them, Stormont ministers were apparently reluctant to raise the issue of human rights, or the lack of them, in China with Madame Liu.
Amnesty International called on the First and Deputy First Ministers to raise abuses with Madame Liu, but sources say it didn’t figure in the talks.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness had been expected to talk to the media from near and far last night, but the news conference was called off.
Officials put that down to protocol, because the Stormont hosts, who plan to visit China later this year, had to accompany their guest at all times.
The chances of reporters throwing an impromptu question at Madame Liu were less than nil, especially as journalists would undoubtedly have sought her opinion about the controversy back home in China over the killing of British businessman Neil Heywood and the arrest of the wife of a Communist Party leader on suspicion of murder.
“That was never going to be allowed on the agenda,” said one source.
But after the media had packed up and gone, the Chinese delegation were able to relax over dinner in Stormont’s Long Gallery where the very non-Oriental menu included vegetable soup, sea bass and a trio of ice-cream and strawberries.