Belfast Telegraph

'We will be there for you'... words uttered by Trump that signal glorious chance to reset clock on NI/US relationship

In an exclusive despatch from the White House, Ian Paisley MP reveals the behind-the-scenes conversation at a St Patrick’s Day event that led to President Donald Trump signalling his intention to visit the Open golf event in Portrush in 2019 - and how his late father sparked a special friendship with Northern Ireland.

And we will be there for you, Northern Ireland".

The words of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, to assembled guests at the White House on March 16. This is a significant promise to the people of Northern Ireland. Those who have claimed that Northern Ireland was falling off the US agenda have now the clearest signal that we are not only on the agenda, but that we have a promise of support given to us in public. I don't think we could have expected any better commitment than this.

Some weeks ago after an email exchange between myself and Donald Trump's office I received a call to confirm an invitation to the White House. I've been privileged to be there before to meet with George W Bush and President Obama and so the possibility of meeting the President and getting an opportunity to push Northern Ireland's agenda is always welcome.

I determined to make some very specific requests of the President. In the words of President Andrew Jackson, who is one of Trump's heroes and whose parents emigrated from their home just outside Carrick, "take time to deliberate, but when the time for action arrived, stop thinking and go in!"

I believe Northern Ireland has more to gain from a relationship with Donald Trump and his administration than the other way around. That puts us in a privileged position. The benefit is all upside for us and we should make the most of it.

I determined that Donald Trump must be formally invited to visit Northern Ireland. He will be coming to the UK and if we can encourage him to make that State visit include all the constituent parts including NI, I believe that will be beneficial for us.

The most important and intimate gathering at Congress is the private Speaker's lunch, when a few guests meet and dine with the President and the Speaker and senior members of the administration. It is the one sure time when you can meet face-to-face. It was there where I met Donald Trump as President. I had met him before when he was a businessman, but this was to be a new experience. When he came into the room accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and the Speaker Paul Ryan, and two senior Congressmen, Richie Neil and Peter King, he spotted me and signalled me over to meet him.

I congratulated him on his electoral success and extended my wishes to his family, whom he had introduced me to in the past. He gave me a very warm welcome and told the people around him that I was a "true friend". He asked how things were going in Northern Ireland. I made it clear that unionists want a deal that will work, that we can't be pushed into something that doesn't work, and if that means another election so be it. I told him that I was confident the will to make a deal is there and that next week we have the opportunity to find the way.

President Trump then asked me to tell him what's going on "over there". Given the importance of Brexit to the new US-UK relationship I told him of my support for Brexit and asked specifically that when he focuses on Brexit and the new trade deal, that I hoped Northern Ireland would have a key part in that because of our real needs. He reminded me that he had tried to do some investment in Northern Ireland and wished it had happened and that he was very keen to help and would use his presidency to help where he can. He was delighted by the support for Brexit notwithstanding the problems.

My main ask was then very specific and he really set it up. He asked me how the golf was in Northern Ireland and reminded me that he would really like to have done some work in this area in NI. Some time ago he had considered a golf investment that did not materialise. I told him that of the three big tournaments, the Irish Open and The Open would be taking place in Portrush. He said he didn't know that but got really interested. I then personally invited him to be a guest when The Open comes. He said that would be a great opportunity and said that he would consider it and that he would "really like to do it. Leave it with me".

I then made him a personal presentation. Some time ago my father had met him in his NYC office. The two men had got on like a house on fire and he had christened Dad "the Legend". I presented him with a photograph of the two of them. He said: "Is this for me? I am so pleased. Dr Paisley was a legend." He called over Peter King and said: "You know, I knew his father, he was a great, great man. I want to keep this picture. Thank you."

I then met with some of his key staff including Kellyanne Conway and we exchanged some personal numbers. I've been asked to meet with them and keep a dialogue going. Later, I was invited back to the White House where the President made a public address and very publicly singled out the leaders from Northern Ireland and told them how important a role they played and stated those words: "We will be there for you". He then publicly mentioned the golf at Portrush, signalling that invitation is on his agenda! He spoke to me again afterwards and said that he would try to make this happen and would keep in contact.

By all accounts from seasoned observers this was the strongest possible signal that he is focused on us and intends to visit. This is a very significant commitment and while I know a lot can happen between now and then, and that some people will have a mindset to oppose these things and even protest, they should also consider the benefits all this could bring us.

Also during the visit I met with the new head of national security and have arranged a detailed follow-up meeting to brief about NI and our needs. I believe this administration is switched onto NI in a way that will take the relationship to a new level.

My visit to Washington included attending the Ireland Funds dinner. I have attended this event on several occasions and, frankly, felt that it had gone very green and had made some delegates feel quite uncomfortable. This year it was very different. It was very neutral. Vice President Pence was a guest of honour and the NI delegates were made to feel not only very welcome, but at home. There was no party politicalisation. Any political comments were about domestic policy over US immigration laws. The Vice President's attendance was a real bonus. His speech was excellent. Afterwards I was invited to meet him. He is deeply religious and has a strong personal faith that he is not ashamed to talk about. We got on very well. My party colleague Paul Givan MLA also met with the VP. Paul asked him if he would extend an invitation to the Lisburn composer and singers Keith and Kirsten Getty to the White House and Mr Pence confided that he was hoping to do that soon.

Northern Ireland was very well represented by the head of Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin; PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton; the Chair of the Policing Board, Anne Connolly; a number of mayors including Maura Hickey of the Causeway Coast and Glens, and the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Brian Kingston. A delegation of folk from across NI were also there. I managed to meet up with two constituents - from Ballymena and Bushmills -who were delighted to play a part in this significant shift in NI-US relations.

The NI Bureau, ably led by our man in Washington, Norman Houston, keeps on delivering NI to the top table in Washington DC.

I believe this has been an excellent opportunity to reset the clock on NI-US relations and that we have more to gain than to lose from a presidential visit. It's essential that we all maintain the momentum. The prize is great!

In an exclusive despatch from the White House, Ian Paisley MP reveals the behind-the-scenes conversation at a St Patrick's Day event that led to President Donald Trump signalling his intention to visit the Open golf event in Portrush in 2019 - and how his late father sparked a special relationship with Northern Ireland

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