Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness visited Washington, D.C. and New York last week to mark the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
In Washington, McGuinness and First Minister Peter Robinson held a series of high-level meetings with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials.
Before traveling to the White House McGuinness and Robinson discussed a number of potential investment opportunities in the North with U.S.-based firms, with McGuinness expressing confidence that jobs would flow to the North as a result of the joint U.S. visit.
The two ministers briefed President Obama on St. Patrick’s Day on recent political developments in the North, including the vote to transfer policing and justice powers from Westminster.
Both men sported green ties for the White House visit and thanked President Obama for his continued support of the peace process. They also discussed the administration’s efforts to secure further American investment in Northern Ireland. The top-level meetings underline that the administration will work to promote Irish issues on an ongoing basis.
“The first thing to say is there is a very strong, very powerful relationship between the administration in the United States and political leaders in the North,” McGuinness told the Irish Voice in New York on Thursday.
“But the bonds between Irish America generally and the Irish people have never been stronger. We’re all very conscious that when there was a state of war in the north of Ireland that in the Irish American community people had different opinions and different ideas about what was the best way forward and there was a certain level of division.
“What the peace process has done is united everybody. All the main sections of Irish America are rock solid behind the peace process. The influence they have brought to bear through the Clinton, Bush and now the Obama administration is quite incredible, I have to say.”
McGuinness stated that the top-level access is granted not just on St. Patrick’s Day, but also on an ongoing basis. It is, he said, is testimony to the friendships between the two nations that quite clearly exist.
“When we meet President Clinton at the American Ireland Fund Dinner you can see the buzz in his face as he’s coming toward you. He knows that one of the great successes of his administration was the role that he played in bringing peace to Ireland along with the rest of us,” McGuinness added.
Irish America has everything to be proud of in terms of the invaluable contributions they have made, McGuinness said.
“That role is changing and it’s best articulated now by Secretary Clinton, where her focus -- at our request -- is on economic investment. I find her as energized about the need to do that as she ever was about any of the work she and Bill were involved in,” McGuinness said.
“Her appointment of Declan Kelly as economic envoy to the North is a very strong declaration of her intent in trying to get investment into the North.”
McGuinness and Robinson met with Clinton at the State Department where, with support from Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, they argued in favor of an extension to the International Fund for Ireland, which the U.S. government has contributed to every year.
“Her take on it was that we shouldn’t be complacent about peace, that we need to recognize that everybody needs to benefit from it, especially where there are areas of social deprivation. Everyone needs to see that they are benefiting from the fruits of the peace process,” he said.
McGuinness said the unified approach between the two main political parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, has also helped to secure economic benefits for the North.
“Hundreds of jobs have been created as the result of linkages we have built up with business leaders here. Now we’re back again and the renewed focus is on economic investment. We are seeing now a comprehensive approach to economic investment,” he said.
In regard to the well-publicized turmoil in Robinson’s personal life over his wife’s infidelity with a teenage lover, McGuinness gave a considered reply.
“Obviously the revelations about his wife were in the public domain and I was concerned. The concern had to be for Peter Robison and his family and the devastating effect this would have on their children,” McGuinness said.
“But also the concern was what impact it would have on the process. Peter’s a strong personality. He has the ability to deal with crisis situations.”
The recent agreement on the transfer of policing and justice from Westminster is a cause for optimism, McGuinness argued.
“I think the outcome from the Hillsborough agreement has hugely strengthened the peace process and hugely stabilized the political institutions, and I have no concerns whatsoever that these institutions are going to collapse between now and the next Assembly elections in 2011,” he said.