THE FOCUS of the Irish peace process has this week switched to the United States, with visits from a number of Northern Ireland figures including the SDLP leader, John Hume, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein.
The stream of visits is seen as a recognition of the fact that the Clinton administration now regards itself as a major player in the Anglo-Irish political arena. It is also viewed as a reflection of the considerable clout wielded by the Irish-American lobby.
Mr Hume, who is spending four days in the US capital, yesterday met Vice-President Al Gore for a briefing on the peace process. His programme also includes meetings with the Speaker of Congress, Tom Foley, Senator Edward Kennedy, and a number of important figures in the administration.
Mr Hume has said he is pressing for inward investment, and for a duty-free scheme allowing products from Northern Ireland and border areas into the US.
Meanwhile, Mr Adams is expected to make his second trip to the US on Saturday, President Bill Clinton having sanctioned his visa.
Mr Adams's first visit to the US in February precipitated a minor Anglo-American crisis as the British government attempted to halt the trip. The Government is also believed to have made representations about this visit, but since the IRA ceasefire much of the heat has gone out of the issue.
The US administration is said to have given assurances that Mr Adams's itinerary will not include a handshake with President Clinton on the White House lawn. He is, however, expected to meet members of Congress and officials from the National Security Council. He is due to arrive in Boston and to tour a number of cities before going to Washington on 3 October.
Meanwhile, a delegation from the Ulster Unionist Party is due in Washington today for a two-day visit, specifically at the invitation of the Vice-President.
The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party is believed to have no present plans to visit the US, although it is considering a number of invitations.
Sinn Fein and a number of other groups are planning to open lobbying offices in Washington. The move is seen as part of a republican plan to distance themselves from Noraid, the fund-raising group which has fallen from favour with Sinn Fein.