US President George W Bush is planning to visit Belfast next month, where he is expected to claim the Irish peace process as part of the legacy of his presidency.
Mr Bush is scheduled to travel to the Belfast Assembly as part of a European tour in mid-June. The visit will take place under the new administration led by the incoming first minister Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness.
The US president has made clear he was anxious to lend his support to power-sharing. This visit will be his stamp of approval for the Six-County administration, despite the controversial failure to transfer powers for policing and justice from London to Belfast and continuing stalemate on other key issues.
The president’s meeting in Belfast follows an earlier get-together with First Minister Ian Paisley of the DUP, and Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, at the White House.
“A big part of the reason behind this is the visit that Paisley and McGuinness made in Washington,” reporters were told by US officials.
“It turned out to be quite a productive meeting and, as a result, the president was keen to get back here.”
It is thought the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will also be present during the visit.
In his video address earlier this month to a high-profile investment conference, Mr Bush said the US would work to facilitate growth and prosperity in the Six Counties.
“We share with you the firm belief that even greater opportunities for co-operation lie ahead,” he said.
The announcement of Bush’s visit comes as the political deadlock within the new Six-County institutions is becoming more pronounced. This week saw an entrenched and rancorous impasse on the matter of the educational selection test, the eleven-plus.
The test, administered to primary school leavers, is associated with a system of privileged access to exclusive, and mainly Protestant, grammar schools. Attempts to reform the test by Sinn Féin’s Minister for Education Caitriona Ruane have met with a political brick wall at Stormont, with unionists claiming to have negotiated the test’s preservation as part of the St Andrew’s Agreement.
“We will not accept less,” Paisley declared this week, as he invoked another DUP veto on new proposals by Ruane to deal with the issues.
“The Education Minister can make any suggestion she wants to,” he added. “However, it will not come into force until she has the support of the DUP and the endorsement of the Executive.”
This will be the second visit to the North by Mr Bush during his two-term presidency. In April 2003, amid heavy protests by peace activists, he travelled to Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast for an Iraqi war summit with former British prime minister Tony Blair.
He also used the occasion to press for progress in the peace process and to hold brief discussions with the larger political parties.