Arlene Foster flying solo as Martin McGuinness bows out of China trip at last minute
First Minister Arlene Foster will single-handedly head a major trade mission to China next week - without deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The senior Sinn Fein figure has pulled out of the trip at the last moment due to "unforeseen personal circumstances".
Stormont and party sources insisted the reasons are "purely personal" yesterday but refused to elaborate.
A brief statement said: "The deputy First Minister will not be travelling to China as planned next week due to unforeseen personal circumstances.
"The First Minister will travel to China as planned with the best wishes and support of the deputy First Minister."
Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness had been due to leave early tomorrow morning and on the first day of their visit - now featuring Mrs Foster on her own - were due to attend the opening of the first Northern Ireland Bureau in the country.
The First Minister told the Assembly earlier this week: "That will be a very important staging post for us out in the Far East."
Mrs Foster also hopes to meet Madam Liu Yandong, one of China's four new vice premiers appointed three years ago.
She is now regarded as one of the most powerful women in the in the world.
Madam Liu visited Northern Ireland in 2012, when she opened the Confucius Institute at the University of Ulster and met senior figures from the political, business and educational worlds.
During her visit, Madam Liu met First Minister Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness "and, indeed, all the Executive and took in some of our tourism opportunities," Mrs Foster added.
"We are going to meet Bombardier, which has a facility out in China - in Shenyang - and we will meet other very important dignitaries in Shenyang and look at various investment opportunities for them here in Northern Ireland.
"We will return to Northern Ireland on Friday of next week."
Asked by party colleague Gordon Dunne "what opportunities exist for further exports of our quality products into new markets like China?" Mrs Foster said: "We will look for opportunities not least for our agri-sector and, in particular, our pork sector out in China.
Joking "the things we do for Ulster !" she added: "We will no doubt eat some of the fare from China and we will bring them the message that Northern Ireland is very much open for business and wants to do business with China. The agri-food sector will be very much a strong part of what we will talk about."
Last month, Stormont Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen undertook a week long agri-food trade mission to China.
She said: "There is no doubt that the Chinese market represents a major opportunity for local producers, many of whom are already doing significant business in China."