Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Well done Obama, but now come and visit us

Everyone’s a winner: Barack Obama’s victory is good news for Northern Ireland

Barack Obama's re-election is good news for Northern Ireland. Now we need to try to get him over here. Since the Clinton presidency, Northern Ireland has been more of a Democratic project than a Republican one. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, has a personal interest.

She visits Ireland next month to address the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) in Dublin, with a trip to Belfast considered likely.

Eamon Gilmore, the tanaiste and foreign minister, steps down as chair of the organisation at the end of the year, but during his 12 months in office he has been assiduous in marketing the lessons of our peace process to other troubled regions.

Hillary Clinton can be expected to build on that. We are seen as a foreign policy success for the United States and also for the Clintons. Those are thin enough on the ground and it gives us a lot of goodwill in the US.

Walter Russell Meade, the New York-based foreign policy expert, summed up the situation on a visit to Belfast last month.

"We wish that more people in more places would be as creative and forward-thinking as people have been in Northern Ireland," he told me. "We also hope that people from Northern Ireland will be able to persuade other people of the wisdom of getting past old conflicts."

Things look bleak enough elsewhere in the globe, particularly the Middle East where US armed action is more likely against Iran than not.

So far, President Obama has held back the hawks - and Israel's president, Benjamin Netanyahu - but only by laying down a very clear marker that a nuclear-armed Iran will not be tolerated. President Netanyahu predicted recently that decision time would come next spring. Then there is Syria, recently visited by David Cameron. By hanging back from intervening on behalf of the insurgents, the West has created a space for jihadist fighters and, now that the insurgents look like winning, it could have lost a possible ally in the region.

Intervening is no easy choice. The mighty US military is overstretched and the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq are that overthrowing a dictator does not necessarily produce a pro-Western democracy. Even in Libya, the outcome of Western intervention is still uncertain and a US ambassador was recently killed there.

With all these problems, we are not top of the US agenda, but in so far as we do feature, it is as an example of an intractable problem peacefully resolved. Our politicians still have fairly privileged access to the White House and many of them are used to give talks and pass on lessons in other troubled regions. We are like a showhouse for the success of Western diplomacy and soft power. We need to build on that image and to pitch for North American investment - given our size, we are unlikely to be punished as a tax haven if we reduce business taxes.

What we should really be pitching for is a presidential visit. Giving his personal seal of approval to the Maze conflict resolution centre would be good for us - and good for President Obama, too.

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