Tear down the walls, urges Bloomberg
Tear down the walls, urges Bloomberg

A high profile US-Northern Ireland investment conference has been taking place in Belfast this afternoon, with newly elected 26-County Taoiseach Brian Cowen, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the North’s First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

They are seeking investment from senior executives, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A plea for the demolition of Belfast’s 40 peace-lines came from Mayor Bloomberg, who said northern Ireland had much to offer, but that “another important step was needed”.

He said it was “in the interests of peace and prosperity” to remove the towering barriers and walls which were constructed to reduce violence at some sectarian interfaces.

“The historic cultural barriers between the two communities here are slowly coming down,” he said. “And the sooner they do, and the sooner the physical barriers come down as well, the sooner the flood gates of private investment will open.”

Mr Cowen said he was delighted that one of his first engagements as Taoiseach brought him to the Six Counties, where there was “something truly special happening”.

The conference is also one of the last acts to be performed by DUP leader Ian Paisley before he resigns his position as the North’s First Minister.

Welcoming members of the US delegation to Belfast last night, Mr Paisley said it was “fitting” that this conference should coincide with the first anniversary of the restoration of power-sharing.

“I believe that the political progress over the last year can be an example as we seek to achieve an economic transformation which will benefit all our people.”

In a video message played to the investment conference, US President George Bush said peace in Ireland was giving people new opportunity to prosper.

“Free market policies have been proven effective in economies across the world, and Northern Ireland has made it clear that you are open to foreign investment,” he said.

“Americans have recognised the expanding opportunities in Northern Ireland. More than 160 US investors now own businesses in your region, and last year, 130,000 Americans visited your beautiful land.”

Mr Bush said the conference, involving US, Irish and British business people, could help strengthen economic ties and reaffirm the commitment to work together in the cause of peace.

“The United States will continue to support the people of Northern Ireland as you take charge of your future, and we share with you the firm belief that even greater opportunities for co-operation lie ahead,” said Mr Bush.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP also held a meeting with four of the major political US leaders attending the conference.

The meeting included New York Mayor Bloomberg; New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson; The Speaker of New York Council Christine Quinn and New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

“I briefed the US leaders on the current political situation and our hopes for the future,” Mr Adams said.

“I specifically stressed the importance of ongoing US engagement in building and sustaining the process, and assisting to overcome any turbulence that might emerge in the time ahead.

“We also spoke about the ability of New York, with its dynamic economy, to provide expert help and assistance for small businesses.”

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