George Bush: Irish bid farewell to globetrotter who can't shoot hoops

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The Independent Online

When George Bush breezed into Belfast yesterday, aides made sure his armoured convoy was pictured beside a symbol of successful conflict resolution: the Northern Ireland Assembly. But their stage management was less successful later when Mr Bush was pictured missing four shots out of four in a basketball practice at a local primary school.

On his final visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Bush met Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the Democratic Unionist leader, Peter Robinson, the twin powersharing leaders – men who the US President would have once denounced as, respectively, a terrorist and an obdurate obstacle to peace.

But yesterday brought nothing but cordiality and congratulations: Mr Bush patted them both approvingly on the back while they spoke longingly of American investment. That was the deal: reflected glory for the President, possible future jobs for Belfast.

"Northern Ireland is a success story," declared Mr Bush. "People have come here and realised it is a good place to invest." Mr Robinson said: "Northern Ireland is truly open for business." Mr McGuinness was optimnistic that much-needed jobs would flow from Mr Bush's efforts.

The three men also lavished praise on the peace process in which the Bush administration played a significant part. It mattered little, during a visit that lasted only a few hours, that the way the Belfast conflict has been laid to rest was not quite along the classic lines of Bush foreign policy.

But yesterday was a day for the broad brush rather than the inconvenient detail. Indeed, in their short public appearance they hardly mentioned the war, the Iraqi one, that is, not the Belfast one – which is now over, which explains why Mr Bush was in Belfast.

A Sinn Fein balancing act was on show yesterday, for republicans have always been strongly against the Iraq war. To express this point some protested some distance away from the encounter. Enough to register in the Belfast media, the calculation may have been, but hardly enough to make it on to American TV.

Although the theme of the visit was a brighter future, Mr Bush actually, if only momentarily, plunged Belfast back into the kind of tight security that was so oppressive in the city's bad old days. Sections of the city were sealed off by police. There was even a no-fly zone, while some police reverted to their heavily armoured Land Rovers instead of their new colourful patrol cars.

Mr Bush came to talk about the future but, ironically, he brought with him a little flashback to the past.