President George W. Bush invited Northern Ireland's first and deputy ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness to the White House on Tuesday to congratulate them on the role they played in the re-establishment of political institutions in the North.

In a statement to the press, McGuinness said the meeting proved that the U.S. remains ready to support the peace process. "Our meeting today confirms once again that despite many competing demands we enjoy access at the highest level in the U.S. We look forward to a similarly close relationship with the incoming administration," he said.

Robinson added, "We were delighted to meet with the president and wish him well for the future, and also thank him for his support over the eight years of his term in the White House."

The invitation to the White House came after a breakthrough deal last month on policing and justice between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein that allowed the Northern Executive to reconvene.

The consensus now is that barring an unexpected crises, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice will be operating by this time next year. Robinson and McGuinness began their trip to the U.S. on Monday, and their four- day mission will acknowledge their achievement and promote the North as an investment opportunity.

On Monday they attended a prestigious Fortune 500 dinner hosted by the U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Paula Dobriansky.

Addressing the forum, Robinson said that Northern Ireland was a viable location for investors despite the recent credit crunch. "Northern Ireland is an economy in transition and we are aware of the challenges that we face. The Executive is committed to offering an open and welcoming environment for inward investment," he added.

"Our location and infrastructure give ready access to the developing all-Ireland economy, access to the British market and into Europe," he said. "Potential investors will find a highly skilled and motivated workforce proven in our history of engineering and in our expertise in emerging technologies."

On Monday the two ministers also had lunch with the Irish American governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley, to discuss potential partnerships. O'Malley recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the University of Maryland, College Park, to create future study and research ties between the two universities.

The lunch was part of the ministers' four-day swing through Washington and New York to meet with business and government leaders and encourage U.S. investment in Northern Ireland.

The two ministers took every opportunity to encourage business leaders to move beyond old notions of Northern Ireland as a dangerous area unsuitable for business or tourism. "Northern Ireland is a very different place than what they have seen on television in the past," Robinson said on Monday. In the recent past, McGuinness added, he would not have talked even about the weather with Robinson.

On Tuesday the two ministers traveled to New York for three days of meetings with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Comptroller General William Thompson, New York State Comptroller Thomas Di Napoli and Chief Executive of the New York Stock Exchange, Duncan Niederauer.

Loretta Brennan Glucksman, chairman of the American Ireland Fund, was also due to host a reception for the two leaders in her New York apartment on Tuesday evening.

McGuinness was keen to emphasize the existing good relationships with the U.S. "Last May at the Investment Conference we delivered a very powerful message to corporate America, showcasing the wealth of opportunity that exists in Northern Ireland for U.S. business," he said.

"This visit to the United States allows us to build on the many relationships and friendships that were established during that conference and establish new opportunities with the leading 500 American companies.

"The economy remains at the center of the Executive's program and one of the main reasons we are here this week is to remind American companies that we can provide an excellent opportunity for those who want to access the EU market."

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