Someone give them an atlas! Now!
Geography errors underscore Bush's low interest in Belfast
BELFAST -- Announcing President Bush's trip here, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer accidentally said last week that Bush would be visiting Dublin. ''I'm sorry, I'm sorry,'' he quickly apologized, saying the trip was really to Belfast. ''I was not a geography major.''
Yesterday, White House staff members made another faux pas: Official credentials and schedules for the trip declared in bold letters that it is ''the Trip of the President to Belfast, Ireland.'' Belfast is in Northern Ireland, and is part of the United Kingdom. The distinction has been the root of strife in the region for decades.
The slips are no doubt isolated, and Bush was almost certainly brought up to speed on British and Irish geography before meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain near Belfast last night, but the mistakes reflected a greater truth about the administration: The president has not shown much personal interest in Northern Ireland to date, and unlike his predecessor, has invested no political capital in ironing out the wrinkles in the peace process.
Blair hopes to change that in their two-day meeting, when, in addition to talking about Iraq and the Middle East, they will meet with the senior political leadership in Northern Ireland. Symbolically, at least, the meetings are important for Blair, falling just before the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday accords this Thursday, when he is expected to unveil the government's plans for restarting the stalled power-sharing agreement.
Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said that although Iraq would be the main focus, Bush is ''very pleased that the prime minister has asked him to come at this time, because it is apparently a very important moment for participants in the Good Friday agreement.''
''There is a belief that some progress can be made,'' Rice said. In the past, Bush has delegated responsibility to Richard Haass, director of policy and planning at the State Department.
The joint Protestant-Catholic assembly created by the Good Friday agreement has been on hold since last October amid allegations of IRA spying on British government ministers. Officials hope that even cursory attention from Bush could nudge the process back on track.
Unlike previous visits from Bill Clinton -- who was met in the streets by cheering crowds and who devoted significant energy to the 1998 peace accords -- Belfast braced for antiwar protests.
Bush and Blair spent the night under tight security at Hillsborough Castle, a retreat 12 miles southwest of the city. Several bomb threats shut down the city center early yesterday. When the White House press corps arrived hours before Bush landed, British Army explosives specialists detonated a package along the major highway connecting the airport to the city. And a bomb threat by someone claiming to represent the splinter group Real IRA turned out to be a hoax.
The erroneous White House credentials, meanwhile, were dismissed by a spokesman for the National Security Council as ''a mistake.'' The spokesman said the paperwork was not vetted by senior officials. And, he said, ''it's not a political statement; it's a typographical statement.''
Fleischer, after mixing up Belfast and Dublin in his press briefing last Friday, said he had written the correct city down, but read the wrong one aloud.