President Bush’s flying visit to Belfast for a confab with Tony Blair—the pair’s third meeting in less than a month—was seen by the British and Ulster papers as an indication of the British prime minister’s transatlantic influence, a sign that Northern Ireland’s stalled power-sharing agreement may soon be revived, and an awkward social occasion.
The Guardian, which opposes the war in Iraq, saw a “small sign of hope” in the Bush-Blair talks. For one thing, an editorial concluded, the visit proves “that Tony Blair must possess more influence over Mr Bush than some people think.” The Independent agreed: “The simple fact of the arrival … of the President of the United States in Northern Ireland is a stunning confirmation of the Prime Minister’s claim to have earned a position of pre-eminent influence over the world’s sole superpower.” Still, the paper said, although Northern Ireland provides an example of an apparently intractable division that has come close to resolution thanks to painstaking negotiation, it also shows that democracy alone isn’t enough: “Giving people the vote is the easy bit; what is much harder is reconciling bitterly divided groups and protecting their interests against the tyranny of majorities, especially within historically arbitrary borders.”
The London Times reported that the trip presented a dilemma for Northern Ireland’s Republicans, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams accused the British government of using the Ulster peace process as “a prop” for a Bush-Blair “war summit.” The paper explained: “Staunchly opposed to the war in Iraq but eager to stay on good terms with the White House, Sinn Fein has been placed in an awkward position by Mr Bush’s visit. The party is attempting to maintain its opposition to military action without attacking the President personally.” Elsewhere, a Times editorial pronounced the occasion a crucial opportunity for Sinn Fein to bring about the IRA disarmament that is needed to revitalize the peace process: “If the republican movement fails to make the most of its opportunity to strike a deal in the next few days, then it will find itself cut adrift from Washington.”
In Northern Ireland, most papers were guardedly optimistic. The Belfast Telegraph was hopeful that the president’s visit portends a breakthrough: “It seems inconceivable that a President who is in the midst of winning the battle for Baghdad would want to be associated with anything other than a victory for peace and reconciliation in Belfast.” Nevertheless, an op-ed in the same paper denounced Bush as “an unwelcome guest.” It said: “Bush’s visit is a joke. He and Blair will have their peacemaking efforts here to validate their war on Iraq. … There is no political party leader in Northern Ireland who wants this visit. It is an embarrassment to all of them.” The unionist News Letter conceded that although the George and Tony show amounts to “little more than scene-setting and moraleboosting,” it intensifies pressure on the parties concerned to move toward an agreement as the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches. The paper concluded:
If those with responsibility in the coming days to “do the Big Thing,” fail to do it, then nothing this newspaper could do, nor anything that the mighty spin machines of governments, presidents or prime ministers might dream up, would renew confidence in the accord. That would be a tragedy for us. We would have failed, together, to find a way of making Northern Ireland work. But it would be an even greater tragedy for much more violent and extensive conflicts.