President meets with Blair in Belfast hotel


President Clinton's helicopter touched down at Belfast City airport at 10.45 p.m. yesterday. He was greeted by the Northern Secretary, Mr Peter Mandelson, the Lord Lieut of Belfast, Lady Cardswell, the US ambassador to the UK, Mr Philip Lader and the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

Mr Clinton's cavalcade then made its way to the Hilton Hotel where it arrived at 11.10 p.m.

The US President was greeted by a small, but enthusiastic crowd before shaking hands with hotel staff and stopping to look at photographs in the hotel reception area, including one of the former peace talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell.

He then had dinner with the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, in the presidential suite.

Mr Blair had surprisingly arrived by helicopter in Belfast shortly after 10 p.m. rather than early this morning as scheduled.

The two men were expected to hold a round of talks late last night before today's crucial meetings with the leaders of the North's political parties at Stormont.

The Democratic Unionist Mayor of Belfast, Mr Sammy Wilson, was absent from the welcoming party for Mr Clinton and claimed to have "a previous engagement".

Mr Blair had arrived from London about an hour before Mr Clinton reached Belfast and was waiting for him when he arrived in the Hilton Hotel, part of a new waterside re-development project on the Lagan on the edge of the city centre.

Mr Blair arrived in Belfast fresh from a grilling by a television audience on ITV's Ask the Prime Minister programme.

A huge stars and stripes flag flew from a nearby building and Mr Clinton was in a relaxed mood when he arrived at the hotel.

He spent some time shaking hands with staff and security personnel as well as acknowledging the crowd of about 300 who had turned out to greet him.

He also lingered to look at the montage of photographs of famous visitors to the hotel who include President Mary McAleese, the Duke of Edinburgh and the opera singer, Luciano Pavarotti.

President Clinton and Mr Blair spoke for a considerable time and this morning Mr Clinton has meetings scheduled with the Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr David Trimble, the deputy First Minister, Mr Seamus Mallon and the president of Sinn Fein, Mr Gerry Adams.

After his talks at Stormont President Clinton will leave Northern Ireland at approximately 5 p.m. and fly with his family to Chequers for a private dinner at 7 p.m. with the Mr Tony Blair, and his wife, Cherie.

The Clintons will stay overnight at Chequers and according to Downing Street there are no plans "as yet" for President Clinton to hold a joint press conference in London with Mr Blair tomorrow. President Clinton and the First Lady will pay a courtesy call to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace tomorrow morning.

The details of this stage of the visit are being finalised and it is not yet clear whether Chelsea Clinton will accompany her parents to the palace.

After meeting Queen Elizabeth, President Clinton will travel to Warwick University to deliver a speech at 2 p.m. on issues of globalisation and the development agenda for the 21st century.

He will also speak about efforts to narrow the gap between the rich and poor.

He decided to deliver his speech at Warwick University because is it one of Britain's newest academic institutions and it is a centre for the study of globalisation and regionalisation.

President Clinton and his family will return to Washington after the speech.