Bush to Meet Blair, Ahern in Belfast

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - President Bush flew to Belfast on Monday for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Iraq and peace plans in the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern and leaders of the main Northern Ireland political parties will join the group on Tuesday.

Bush's visit comes at a crucial time for the province. Last October, the regional legislature was suspended after the Irish Republican Army was accused of spying on lawmakers.

New elections are scheduled for next month, and a positive statement by Bush - along with an expected IRA declaration later this week - may break the impasse.

However, politicians in Northern Ireland were wary about Bush's visit.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a staunch opponent of war in Iraq, called the timing of the summit "insensitive."

Party officials said they would participate in anti-war demonstrations outside the talks.

"We regard the engagement of U.S. administrations in the Irish peace process as positive," party chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said in a statement. "However, we are strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq."

On the other side of the religious divide, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble welcomed the visit but said: "I trust a common approach to terrorism will be taken irrespective of whether it is in the Middle East or in Northern Ireland.

"I would caution against any mixed messages which would only give succour to Irish republicans," he said.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which created the assembly and set out terms for the disarmament of the Irish Republican Army. Blair is scheduled to publish a new plan for the province by Thursday.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, terror attacks on the British mainland have largely ceased, although dissident groups have continued to target London and other cities. In Northern Ireland itself, tension between Catholics and Protestants remains high.

Iraq to Be Discussed

The peace process could be overshadowed, however, by discussions on the running of Iraq after military action is completed.

The coalition partners apparently agree on an overall procedure for running Iraq after Saddam is deposed, but differences between the allies remain. In particular, Blair is looking for heavy U.N. involvement in a post-war Iraq in order to shore up support at home and in Europe.

Jacqueline Grapin, president of the Washington-based European Institute, said that the choice of Hillsborough Castle outside of Belfast for the summit might have been inspired by the leaders' desire to show "that the fight against terrorism goes across borders and outside of the Middle East.

"However, making any link between Iraq and Northern Ireland might be a bit far-fetched," she said.

An agreement on how to run post-war Iraq that is acceptable to the international community is essential, Grapin said, if the United States and Europe are to avoid further strained relations.

"The security situation will be diminished...if the U.S. and Europe keep having disagreements," she said. "Fundamentally, they have the same interests."

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.