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Bush on tour: Meticulous planning for a visit lasting just four hours


President George W Bush

President George W Bush

President George W Bush

It took weeks of planning, involved hundreds of people, and cost more than the combined salaries of all Assembly member's relatives employed at Stormont. And it lasts less than four hours.

President George W Bush finishes one of his final overseas tours in Northern Ireland today, completing a week of European engagements as his final term enters its last months.

His second visit to Northern Ireland is the fifth presidential stop here in 13 years, underlining how the peace process has — proportionally — become an important focus for American foreign policy over that time.

Mr Bush is visiting touchstones important to the US government throughout that period — the power-sharing administration at Stormont and an integrated school.

But there will be a touch of wider foreign policy issues as well — with Sinn Fein's youth wing promising last week that Martin McGuinness will raise the Iraq War with President Bush when he greets him at Stormont as Deputy First Minister.

The DUP is also said to want more US pressure on Libya to settle a court case involving IRA victims.

The roots of the visit lie in last December's White House stop by Mr McGuinness and the then First Minister, Ian Paisley.

Their chat with the President lasted longer than had been scheduled, and officials say there was an informal suggestion at the end — some say it came from the President himself — that Mr Bush pay another visit to Northern Ireland.

When it was proposed that visit become part of a wider European tour, White House advance teams would have started work on suitable locations for Mr Bush to see.

Stormont was obviously always on that list but the school was also a likely choice — the US administration has long championed integrated education as an important element for a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

Security is obviously an important element of advance preparations. London is one of the few cities outside America with a Secret Service office, so agents responsible for protecting the president would have been able to scout locations immediately.

The entourage accompanying Mr Bush may be slightly smaller than normal. But that entourage will still be enormous. The logistics in delivering it are also huge — the Americans provide all their own vehicles, from the Presidential helicopter (Marine One), to the armoured limo (Cadillac One) and all the massive 4x4s that carry bodyguards, assistants and communications equipment.

That means disruption — something Northern Ireland people have nearly got used to in the round of visits that started with President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Mr Clinton eventually made three visits as president.

Traffic in east Belfast is bound to be seriously affected for the duration of the visit, due to end around teatime.

Even the Assembly has been disrupted — with today's sitting cancelled, even though Mr Bush was not scheduled to enter Parliament Buildings.

Access to the Stormont estate was set to be completely closed off during his stop at Stormont Castle to meet members of the Executive and wish Mr Paisley well in retirement.

By evening, most of the massive operation is scheduled to have disappeared back to America, possibly bringing to a close the final US Presidential visit to Northern Ireland ... although that was also said when Mr Clinton left office.

Belfast Telegraph