Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Peter and Martin would do more staying at home

Robinson and McGuinness should save their show of unity for Belfast on St Patrick's Day not Washington DC, says Ruairi O'Kane

There used to be a saying in Derry that if John Hume saw an aeroplane fly overhead on its way to America, he would wonder why he wasn't on it.

Hume led the way when it came to getting in the ears and in the faces of influential US politicians in the late 1970s and 1980s.

As US involvement in the peace process intensified, so, too, did the volume and frequency of transatlantic trips by our elected representatives.

The presidential reception on St Patrick's Day is now an established date in the political calendar. However, as the First and deputy First Minister prepare to embark on their annual Washington jaunt, the value of such trips are becoming increasingly questioned.

While David Cameron has firmly closed the door of 10 Downing Street on our politicians, the US administration seems to be content to continue to roll out the welcome mat at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a result, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will lead Team NI to the US, accompanied by a number of Executive colleagues, party leaders, MLAs and the traditional entourage of special advisors, Press officers and civil servants.

The numbers involved in the traditional political circus have concerned Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt after five invites were extended to members of his Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister committee, instead of the usual two.

Nesbitt, who chairs the scrutiny panel, vowed to withdraw from the trip if other parties accepted the extra places, claiming it would cost the taxpayer another £17,000.

But, expense aside, there is real disquiet about whether any tangible benefits emerge from these excursions. The Irish convergence on Capitol Hill has become more low-key in recent years. Active interest in Irish affairs peaked in the last decade, if not the last century.

Of course, there will be those who argue that St Patrick's Day offers an unmissable opportunity to market the region on a global stage.

But while talking up jobs, investment and tourism is laudable, it is doubtful how many actual deals can be achieved during this whirlwind of receptions, briefings and breakfasts.

The Executive can point to investment from the New York Stock Exchange and hit TV show Game of Thrones, which is backed by US broadcaster HBO, as notable successes. Less has been heard about the much-heralded Emerald Fund.

One can only wonder what news from the aul' sod Robinson and McGuinness will share with President Obama during their meeting in the Oval Office.

Will they tell him how businesses in Belfast has been blighted by flag protesters? Or how child poverty levels in Northern Ireland are among the worst in the UK? Or how one-in-five of our young people is unemployed? Or how we are no closer to producing a strategy to reconcile our divided communities?

Highly unlikely, I suspect, but our political leaders will be afforded the chance to act as statesmen and receive continued platitudes for a process that should have progressed much further than it has.

And as Robinson will wear a green tie and McGuinness will say Londonderry to the delight of their audiences, the other parties will be frantically attempting to remind Irish-America who they are, without realising that the Americans only back winners.

Without a doubt, the symbolism of a united front among the Executive – and especially between the DUP and Sinn Fein – sends out a powerful message.

But, given the events of recent months, it would be much more powerful and a greater act of leadership if Robinson and McGuinness could stand together on St Patrick's Day in districts of Belfast, rather than the District of Columbia.

The days of running to America must surely be coming to an end, as Obama enters his final term and his nation fixes its focus on its own domestic problems.

Our political eyes need to shift their gaze closer to home. Otherwise, as each plane flies over and out of our towns and cities, there will be more and more people here wondering why they are not on them.

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