Belfast Telegraph

Tide's turned in Washington - now unionism's voice being heard by US President

Ian Paisley writes exclusively from Washington on the DUP's St Patrick's Day trip to the US

The tide has turned. This week unionism was represented in Washington DC to an extent not witnessed before. The DUP delegation, led by party deputy leader Nigel Dodds, three MLAs - Edwin Poots, Paul Givan and NI's youngest MLA Jonathan Buckley - MEP Diane Dodds, councillor Philip Brett and myself, invested time and energy in a concerted campaign to deliver a message to a captive audience about Northern Ireland and its needs at the present time.

Two important factors are to our favour. Firstly, the surprising fact that Irish nationalism and republicanism have virtually abandoned the field - possibly believing the ground is already theirs. And, secondly, the election of Donald Trump has changed the scene altogether.

It is without doubt that the unconventional and truly unique nature of the US President has opened up an opportunity of very direct access that unionists have to the presidency and to the politics of DC.

It is essential that we get our message out. We have a good, positive message to tell about NI even with the political difficulties that exist. America remains interested in NI and especially so in the potential opportunities that Brexit will create.

Obviously we have a job to do countering much of the unjustifiable gloom that some push about this subject, but it is evident that Americans in the know recognise that Brexit offers significant opportunities for improved US-UK opportunities.

I feel very honoured to have developed a close relationship with the Trump family. That started many years ago when we first met, and I have kept that relationship alive. I believe that it has come into its own. And we have a window of opportunity to promote our cause and our case in the highest office. That is an opportunity not to be squandered.

I was honoured to receive a personal invitation from the President and the First Lady to attend the White House reception. Little did I know when I accepted the invitation what further privileged access I would have.

However, earlier in the day our delegation was invited to Capitol Hill along with Secretary of State Karen Bradley to attend the prestigious Speaker's Lunch. This is a very intimate event and while the Irish PM is the guest speaker it was evident that most of the guests were unionist politicians, not only including our DUP delegation, but former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who was fresh from a lively public discourse with Gerry Adams, who was conspicuous by his absence. Indeed, as Leo Varadkar looked around that room he must have thought how outnumbered he was. And that is a remarkable turning of the tables. Instead of being one or two voices - I've attended this event for the last three Presidents and unionism was the minority at the table - today we are not only at the top table but at every other table in the room. An event designed to promote the Republic has conceded the ground to NI as the main talking point.

The President didn't need to be introduced to the unionists there, as he's on a first name basis and made that known by referring in glowing terms to his friends in NI.

Possibly the first time since Washington himself realised where the power lies, Trump has homed in to where his support and sympathies rest.

Earlier in the day the NI Bureau, led by the indomitable Norman Houston, hosted the major go-to event, the St Patrick's Breakfast. There, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, gave an upbeat message of NI economic performance and Invest NI's Steve Harper told of the economic opportunities and links that bind NI and the USA. It was a compelling story. Once again Sinn Fein, either by design or accident, was absent. Hundreds of American business and political leaders were open pickings for the delegation there and they absorbed a message that is pro-business.

Later, at a reception at the White House, President Trump personally invited me to join him and the First Lady Melania along with Vice President Pence and his family in the private family party.

I don't believe any unionist politician and possibly no NI person has ever been brought from behind the guest line into this inner sanctum to engage with and enjoy the company of the first family.

We had a very social time chatting about the issues that confront us, but more importantly building a relationship that will endure.

One image does remain. When I left the event, outside I met about 30 kids from a New York school. These young teenagers were all wearing pro-Trump hats and badges. They were excited by the President.

Some media would have you think the youth are not engaged with this presidency. The fact is, he is inspiring them.

Be assured, our opponents will have noted this turning of the tide and they will make a concerted effort in the years ahead to wind back the influence. We must not lose the bounce.

I feel very privileged to have played a small part in this coup. I predict that the President will visit the UK very soon and - who knows? - his interest in golf just may bring him to our own north coast.

God Bless America.

Pence’s invite to Varadkar and partner

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar discussed equality and LGBT rights issues with US Vice President Mike Pence during his St Patrick’s Day trip to Washington DC.

Mr Varadkar said he raised rights issues with Mr Pence, who has been criticised for his stance on the matter, when he met the Pence family yesterday morning.

“I did privately manage to speak to them about equality and my support for equal rights for women and the LGBT community here in America and also in Ireland,” Mr Varadkar said.

“They were very well briefed.

“They knew about my personal story, they knew that my partner was living in Chicago, and they said that both Matt and I would both be welcome to visit their home in future, so I thought that was a very nice gesture.”

At the meeting, the vice president invited Mr Varadkar’s partner Matt to join him for next year’s St Patrick’s Day event.

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