Belfast Telegraph

Optimism abounds as First Ministers bask in limelight and feelings of goodwill

By Liam Clarke

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were on cloud nine. The First and Deputy First Ministers had been transported across Lough Erne on a cruiser after spending 40 minutes speaking to the leaders of some of the most powerful countries in the world.

Everyone, from foreign journalists to police drafted in from England to contain violence and protests that never happened, were impressed with the place. It had been the most peaceful G8 ever, on the first day at least.

Inside the message was not so clear. The leaders started drifting into the Lough Erne Resort from mid-morning and came together at an hour-long reception which started at 3.45pm where they met Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

After they left, proceedings moved on to the announcement of the reopening of stalled EU/US trade negotiations. There was a general mood of optimism that the world economy may be starting to turn the corner and that freeing up trade would give it the lift-off it needed.

The most intractable problem — Syria — was dealt with in another bilateral. The conflict there has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and could drag western nations into another Libya or — worse still — another Iraq.

There was some optimism when Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin of Russia gave a joint Press conference. The two men back opposite sides in the conflict — but it ended with jokes about basketball, smiles and handshakes. The hope is that they will use their leverage to force both sides to the table in peace talks at Geneva.

They continued their discussion at a foreign policy dinner yesterday evening where they dined on Comber spuds and Kilkeel crab. That was basically all we have heard after the first day of the G8.

Behind the scenes, some were considering whether Northern Ireland’s meandering peace process, which produced no clear winners, could offer pointers for other seemingly intractable conflicts. Introducing that cautionary note may be one reason why world leaders were introduced to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness so early on in proceedings. Everyone wanted some of the credit for the Northern Ireland settlement and wanted it to work.

“This is a signal to the world that peace and stability have returned to this beautiful part of Europe. This places on a global stage the efforts of the people of Northern Ireland supported also by the European Union,” said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso during a Press conference, at which he recommended open ended talks on Syria. Some of the foreign leaders were amazed at how long the DUP and Sinn Fein’s power-sharing administration had been in place despite so many years of conflict. It hadn’t sunk in, but was still a source of pride for the First Minister.

“The Italian Prime Minister, the German Chancellor, the French President all were very interested about the peace process. When people look in from afar they can see more clearly the line of movement we have been on,” said Mr Robinson.

Northern Ireland needs to turn all this goodwill and interest into active engagement and investment.

The G8’s critics often accuse some of its members of being aggressive superpowers too fond of using military muscle abroad. But Mr Obama can point to Northern Ireland as an example of America ‘soft power’ — diplomacy, trade, exchanges — in action. Mr Obama, in his second term, seems to be putting some emphasis on this.

“President Obama understands the importance of ensuring that we continue to move forward, and bring the changes which are required because he wants to hold this up as an example to other conflicts around the world,” Mr McGuinness said after meeting the President.

Mr Robinson believes that US endorsement can help him unite the Executive around his proposals for a shared future.

“I had a good opportunity to talk to President Obama. He was very supportive of what we are doing with the shared future and that may help convince both the general public and colleagues on the Executive that this is the road to travel and we need to increase the pace,” he said.

Goodwill must be turned into engagement

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