Irish Republicans were divided this week as US President George Bush visited Belfast to support the Irish peace process while evading questions over his war in Iraq.
During a brief stopover at Stormont Castle, Mr Bush continued to pledge support for US investment for the Six Counties.
British officials would not allow reporters near the president, or to address any questions to him.
Following talks, Mr Bush invited the North’s First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, to make a further visit to the White House.
McGuinness said Bush’s invitation came during talks on a host of issues including the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Belfast Assembly.
“He talked for the need for leadership. He was very strong on the issue although he was very respectful to the two positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin,” Mr McGuinness said.
Bush had “majored” on the topic of policing and justice and the necessity to have those powers devolved, he added.
Speaking before the cameras, Mr Bush hailed the Irish peace process as a success story that should inspire the world.
“I am impressed by the work that is being done towards peace and reconciliation,” the US President said.
“As a matter of fact, the world is impressed. Northern Ireland is a success story. Obviously more work has to be done.
“Progress made to date would have been unimaginable 10 years ago.”
Sinn Féin said Mr McGuinness had also raised the issues of the invasion and occupation of Iraq directly with the US President, as well as the issue of the undocumented Irish.
Throughout Belfast, socialists and Irish republicans staged protests amid anger in many quarters that the visit took place at all.
At the US Consulate, activists from eirigi arrived with chains and banners at the entrance before unfurling a banner stating: “Closed To Stop War Crimes”.
eirigi chairman Brian Leeson said they took the action at the Stranmillis Road offices to highlight the “countless war crimes” committed by the US.
Later, a number of speakers at a lunchtime ‘Bush Not Welcome’ rally outside Belfast’s City Hall angrily condemned the President’s invite to Belfast.
Activists scaled the building and removed the union flag and replaced it with the Iraqi flag, while a 1,000-strong crowd who had gathered on the street below cheered.
Protesters carried placards bearing slogans including ‘George Bush War Criminal’, ‘Murderer Go Home’ and ‘George Bush Go Home’ as others shouted anti-Bush chants.
West Belfast Assemblyman Paul Maskey was among a Sinn Féin contingent which marched to the demonstration from party offices in west Belfast.
“We have made it very, very clear that we are opposed to what the US is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries as well.
“We have made that clear to George Bush.”
Mr Maskey said Martin McGuinness would be raising “many issues” with the US President, including the “undocumented Irish” in the States.
The Sinn Féin Assembly member also said: “We also have to remember too that successive American governments have actually helped our peace process.”
Derry left-wing activist Eamonn McCann, one of the speakers at the protest rally, commented afterwards:
“To say that the position of Sinn Féin is anomalous is to put it very mildly indeed. You cannot at one and the same time have your leader at Stormont welcoming George Bush and then have members of the same party saying he’s not welcome.”
The Sinn Féin protest at City hall was organised by its youth wing, Ogra Shinn Féin. OSF national organiser Barry McColgan said there was no contradiction between the actions of the protestors and those of Martin McGuinness, who had negotiated with the British government at the height of the conflict in Ireland.
“Ogra Shinn Féin called for Imperialists out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also out of our own country,” he said.
There was a heavy Crown force presence along all routes to Stormont and outside the main gates. A riot squad accompanied by uniformed PSNI stood across the gates of Stormont behind six landrovers as a further protest took place.
After a visit lasting over three hours, Mr Bush returned to his flight by helicopter and the protest ended without incident.