Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 24 May 2016

First Ministers to meet Obama on whirlwind St Patrick's visit

By Yvette Shapiro

Published 12/03/2016

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness will fly to New York tomorrow night for a coast-to-coast quest for jobs and investment.

As part of the St Patrick's week celebrations, the hectic schedule drawn up for the First and Deputy First Ministers includes business breakfasts, working lunches, seminars, speeches and meetings with prospective investors in New York, Washington DC and San Francisco.

The highlight of the four-day trip is a meeting with vice-President Joe Biden in the White House, where it's expected President Obama will also greet the two Northern Ireland leaders.

Every detail of the mission is being overseen by Larne-born diplomat Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC, who will accompany the ministers at every engagement.

"St Patrick's is our one moment in the sun here," he said. "A meeting with the President is a major achievement. We are the only devolved mission with direct access to the White House because of the relationship with administrations during the peace process."

In the past, dissident republican activity and wrangling at Stormont have provided a negative backdrop for St Patrick's Day events in the US capital. But Mr Houston said last week's bomb attacks in Belfast and Londonderry were not clouding this year's visit.

"Fortunately, those sad events have not gained any traction in the US media," he added. "I have had no calls about it. The First and Deputy First Ministers will say that the political institutions are sound and that they are fully behind a peaceful society. The continuity of government has helped. People do ask questions, but there is no negativity. There's no concern here that the process will collapse."

Mr McGuinness is a veteran of St Patrick's Day visits to Washington, but this will be Mrs Foster's first official trip to the United States in her new role as First Minister, although she made numerous visits as Enterprise Minister.

Speaking at the Lisburn and Castlereagh Business Awards last night, Mrs Foster (right) pledged to use the trip to sell a positive message about NI.

"That's what I will be doing when I go to America next week," she said. "I will tell President Obama - and in fact anyone who will listen - the positive news that our wee country is one they should put at the top of their list to visit and invest in."

The planned cut in corporation tax to 12.5% in 2018 will form the central theme of this week's high-profile trade and investment mission. Mr Houston said the duo were determined to make a major impact on US investors.

"Corporation tax is the game-changer, as everyone says, and we have got just over a couple of years to get the message out to companies who are thinking of investing overseas," he added. "The First and Deputy First Ministers will be working as soon as they hit the ground in New York, so that they can meet as many business leaders as possible."

After a business breakfast in the city on Monday morning Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness will catch a train to Washington for a round of engagements, including a traditional Irish breakfast at the W Hotel. Fermanagh chef Noel McMeel from Lough Erne Resort, who catered for the G8 leaders in 2013, will oversee the meal, putting the spotlight on Northern Ireland's Year of Food and Drink. He will also cook lunch at the British Embassy on Wednesday for Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.

Tourism Ireland is using the visit for promotion, and Mrs Foster told guests at last night's awards dinner that she intended to put the province on the map for American visitors.

"This year we will have over 80 cruise ships visiting Belfast," she added. "We've complaints of too many tourists at the Dark Hedges and we have tour buses travelling all throughout the country. This was unimaginable when I was growing up. People steered clear of here rather than visit. We're going in the right direction. We have first-class visitor attractions in every county and I want to play my part in bringing people from all over the world to see them."

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