By Ray O’Hanlon
The World Economic Forum is a high-powered event with an impressive title. But for Northern Ireland political leaders arriving in New York City for the WEF later this week, the forum, being held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is only one of many reasons to cross the Atlantic fully six weeks before St. Patrick’s Day.
David Trimble, Mark Durkan and Gerry Adams have a clock-crunching list of events linked both to their jobs and parties.
In the case of SDLP leader Durkan, there is also the slight matter of being introduced to Irish America as the successor to John Hume.
And there is also the matter of how the party can tap into the Irish American political and financial sentiment so successfully mined by Sinn FTin in recent years.
Durkan is visiting the U.S. as deputy first minister of the elected assembly in Northern Ireland.
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Together with First Minister David Trimble, he will be attending events in his official capacity in Boston and Washington, D.C., as well as in New York.
But there’s party business to deal with too. Lots of it.
“We are looking at expanding our presence in the U.S. and are looking at America as a support base and a place of influence in a much more concerted way,” one SDLP source said this week.
The SDLP, said the source, had closely watched the efforts made by Sinn FTin in recent years in the U.S.
The party believed that there was “massive residual support” for the SDLP, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11 and the arrest of three men in Colombia last August with ties to Sinn FTin and the IRA.
This support, the source asserted, would be firmly lined up behind the SDLP’s decision to take part in the new North policing board.
The party is also looking at the possibility of setting up a U.S. office.
“It may not be a formal office with an address or a fax, but we are looking very closely at some way of better representing our interests in the U.S., perhaps with a person or persons,” the SDLP source said.
Such representation might be by means of a party representative, not unlike Anne Smith, who flies the Ulster Unionist Party banner in Washington, D.C.
Smith told the Echo that First Minister Trimble would also be meeting with a number of people during his visit in the context of his leadership of the UUP.
“He will have at least four or five additional appointments when he is down here,” Smith said.
While in Washington, Trimble and Durkan will, in their ministerial capacities, open new offices for the Northern Ireland Bureau, which, until recently, was housed at the British Embassy.
Gerry Adams will not be attending. But he has, nevertheless, a full schedule beyond the WEF forum on Northern Ireland he will be attending on Sunday, Feb. 3, along with Trimble, Durkan, David Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party and Dr. Richard Haass, the Bush Administration’s special envoy to the peace process.
According to Sinn FTin’s U.S. representative, Rita O’Hare, Adams is also lined up for another WEF discussion workshop, to be held on Saturday. Other speakers expected at the Saturday gathering include former president Bill Clinton and South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu.
O’Hare acknowledged that policing in Northern Ireland, and Sinn FTin’s refusal to take a place on the North policing board, would likely loom large in the Sunday discussions.
“But if anyone’s under pressure on policing, it’s the SDLP,” she said.
Adams will attend a couple of Friends of Sinn FTin fund-raising events but one of the more crucial political moments may well come in a meeting with Rep. Ben Gilman.
The Rockland County legislator, a longtime friend of Sinn FTin on Capitol Hill, has made clear his strong concerns over the Colombia arrests and has also come out in support of the police board that Sinn FTin is presently boycotting.
So are relations between Adams and Gilman in need of urgent warming up?
There was a difference “at the moment” between Adams and Gilman on the police issue, O’Hare acknowledged. “But we expect the meeting between Gerry and Ben Gilman to be absolutely friendly and productive.
“Nobody can match Gilman’s record on Ireland in Congress. He stood out strongly on Ireland long before it became popular. We owe him.”