Bush: You’ve impressed the world
Northern Ireland has made "unimaginable" progress, President George Bush said yesterday — but more work needs to be done.
In a four-hour, 25-minute whistlestop visit, the world's most powerful politician labelled the province a "success story".
But he also told First Minister Peter Robinson that the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont must proceed — and voiced the hope Mr Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will visit him in Washington before his term of office ends next January.
The American leader also dodged anti-war protesters gathered at the gates of Stormont, when his 30-vehicle cavalcade entered the estate through the Massey Avenue side entrance.
The gaffe-prone President also managed a goof-free day, leaving Prime Minister Gordon Brown to blunder instead. Brown boobed by flagging up a jobs announcement, even though the details — said to involve 100 new jobs — have yet to be finalised.
In contrast, Mr Bush was 'on message' throughout, building on the spade work of the United States Economic Conference by labelling NI Ltd as a "good place for investment".
He said: "Ultimately investment will help NI reach its full potential. Northern Ireland is a success story. Obviously more work has to be done. Progress made to date would have been unimaginable ten years ago."
President Bush with Taoiseach Brian Cowen, First Ministers Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Prime Minister Gordon Brown
At the end of a six-day visit, seen as a farewell tour of Europe, Mr Bush said the rest of the world was impressed by the progress of peace and reconciliation in the province — with other countries looking on.
Mr Bush laughed, however, when Mr Robinson quipped that the President had recognised Belfast as one of the major cities of Europe.
"We are very grateful not just for him coming today but for the work that has been done by the president and his ambassadors over the previous years, and particularly for the work that is being done most recently for the investment conference," the First Minister added.
"The endorsement of the president for our investment conference went a long way to convincing people throughout the world that Northern Ireland is open for business."
Mr McGuinness said the day was an "an opportunity for us to give our thanks for the tremendous work that has been done in terms of the United States of America on what is now undoubtedly one of the most successful peace processes in the world today.
"Beginning with the work of President Clinton, plus the contribution of George Mitchell and the envoys who were sent by President Bush, all of them played a very important role in contributing to what I do believe is, as the president has identified, a role-model for how other conflicts can be resolved in other parts of the world."
He said representatives from Iraq had visited Stormont to learn and other conflict areas "are anxious to learn from our experience".
"We don't believe that we have got all of the answers, but what we can certainly do is outlay our experiences for others to consider," Mr McGuinness added.
After meeting the Stormont top two, along with Junior Ministers Gerry Kelly and Jeffrey Donaldson, Mr Bush was then joined by Mr Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen and spent a further half-hour discussing ways to build on the economic conference.
At the Presidents's personal request, a meeting was also arranged with former First Minister Ian Paisley who struck up a rapport with Mr Bush during his visit to Washington with Mr McGuinness last December.
Mr Bush and First Lady, Laura Bush went their separate ways soon after arriving. Mrs Bush joined up with Mr Brown's wife, Sarah, and Mr Robinson's wife, Iris, to meet young people and community workers in the city.
Then the Bushes were reuninted for a visit to Loughview Integrated Primary School in east Belfast where they met pupils and integrated education activists.
Strict security was maintained throughout the day. More than 50 anti-war demonstrators protested outside the main gates of the Stormont estate after a demonstration in the centre of Belfast included the erection of an Iraqi flag on the City Hall. DUP councillor Robin Newton said: "Those who broke into the City Hall to remove the Union Jack and replace it with the Iraqi flag deserve to be condemned."
Among those protesting at Stormont was a contingent from SDLP youth and Mr McGuinness' Sinn Fein colleague Daithi McKay, an MLA for North Antrim.
Parliament Buildings itself was virtually empty with the Assembly shut for the day as a result of the visit, a decision condemned by the Alliance Party as "needless".
SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell said that a major opportunity to showcase the new assembly had been missed. "Not only will the public rightly ask why the Assembly could not continue working today, they will also wonder why the opportunity to showcase our institutions at work to a worldwide audience was not seized," he said.