Clinton hosts US forum on North

 

FORMER US president Bill Clinton still has a soft spot for Northern Ireland, going back to the 1990s when he helped foster the Belfast Agreement.

So when Declan Kelly, who is secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s newly appointed special economic envoy to Northern Ireland, asked Mr Clinton to hold a session on the North as part of his fifth annual global initiative conference this week, he accepted.

With the help of the American Ireland Fund, the meeting for more than 500 people was organised in a week.

On Wednesday night in Manhattan, the conference was like a television talk show, with Mr Clinton playing presenter. From left to right across the stage, Mr Clinton questioned Peter Robinson, First Minister for Northern Ireland; Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister; Mr Kelly, special envoy; Shaun Woodward, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Education Minister Reg Empey were seated in the front rows of the audience.

Mr Clinton’s initiative is a business gathering that matches wealthy investors with development projects. The message throughout the one-hour seminar was clear: the Troubles are well and truly over; the North is a safe and profitable place to invest.

“The last thing any of us want to do is get into the tough details of politics,” Mr Robinson said. But if he were considering investing in the North, “the underlying issue on my mind would be political stability. I have an absolute commitment to seeing this through. Neither I nor my party think about leaving the assembly.”

Mr Clinton said the Belfast Agreement, “ratified by both communities in Northern Ireland and strongly supported by the Irish and British governments, should be studied everywhere”.

The secret to its success was democratic majority rule, minority rights and explicit ties to the United Kingdom and the Republic. Mr Clinton joked that he had “ruined” Martin McGuinness’s “roguish image” and “turned him into a devoted public servant”.

Mr McGuinness said developing the North’s economy was the “single most important programme” of the two-year-old Government. “My first year in government with Ian Paisley was a revelation. He said to me: ‘You know, Martin, we can rule ourselves. We don’t need direct rule ministers coming over from London.’ I said: ‘You’re singing my music.’”

It “wasn’t easy being in a government with the DUP”, Mr McGuinness said. “I’m sure Peter would say it’s not easy being in government with Sinn Féin.” He asked investors to “spread the word. We are open for business – big time. There’s no going back. The war is over. People want peace.”

Several speakers vaunted the merits of the North’s well-educated workforce, free training and the low cost of doing business . US companies such as Caterpillar and Dupont employ 14,000 people in the North.

The argument to potential investors, Mr Clinton joked, “is that if they could make a deal with each other, they could make a deal for you”.

Mr Kelly, who was an adviser to Mr Clinton’s wife during her presidential campaign, “could sell ice to an Eskimo” and was “more hard-headed than Peter Robinson or Martin McGuinness. I have never seen him fail.”

“One of the consequences of 40 years of troubles,” Shaun Woodward said, was that “economic changes that happened elsewhere in the world did not take place in Northern Ireland”. For example, nearly 70 per cent of its economy is still in the public sector.

Mr Martin said there has been “a sea-change in interaction between business communities”.

Dublin-Belfast roads, an all-Ireland energy grid and Tourism Ireland were shining examples of North-South co-operation.