A campaign to bring the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) – the biennial meeting of more than 50 Commonwealth nations’ leaders – to Belfast has been quietly gathering pace.
The 2018 event, which would involve thousands of delegates flying in from around the world, would involve the political leaders of a third of the entire global population.
Over recent weeks, a campaign to bring the prestigious event to Belfast has been discreetly undertaken by veteran Ulster hotelier Lord Diljit Rana and Brian Scott, a former head of Oxfam Ireland.
Last week they went public about the matter and First Minister Arlene Foster came out strongly in support of the idea, telling the Belfast Telegraph: “This meeting would, once again, put the eyes of the world on Northern Ireland and provide the platform to share our world-renowned welcome and hospitality.
“As First Minister, I stand ready to assist in any way in making this a reality.”
However, although Mrs Foster – whose home constituency of Fermanagh hosted the G8 Summit with aplomb in 2013 – has enthusiastically endorsed the idea as an individual, it appears that Sinn Fein is reticent about allowing the Executive to back the campaign.
The News Letter asked The Executive Office (TEO) on Monday morning to clarify whether the First Minister and the deputy First Minister both support the initiative and whether they will lobby to get this meeting to Belfast.
On Monday, Stormont Castle did not respond.
Then, after several reminders on Tuesday, a 34-word response, which effectively amounted to “no comment”, came back on Tuesday night.
In it, TEO said: “The First Minister is on the record supporting any potential bid to get the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to Belfast. The Executive Office has no further comment to make at this stage.”
Although Mrs Foster has firmly supported the bid, Dr Scott expressed frustration at how little interest there has been from senior politicians.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, he said: “The enormous potential benefits to Northern Ireland in terms of business and tourism in the long term are so self-evident that I cannot understand why there has been practically no interest.”
Mr Scott also emphasised that the Executive does not have the luxury of taking its time in making a decision on whether to lobby for the event.
He said that a final decision by the could be about three months away, as the venue has to be agreed 12 months before the event takes place.
“If we don’t move now and mount a campaign, putting forward a persuasive argument, then we’ll just not be at the match.”
The last CHOGM was held in Malta in November 2015 and the next meeting is scheduled for early 2018 in the UK. Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester are believed to be discreetly lobbying the Foreign Office – which will advise the ultimate decision-maker, the Prime Minister – ahead of a decision on the host city being made.
The last UK-hosted CHOGM was held in Edinburgh in 1997.
As head of the Commonwealth, the Queen typically opens each meeting, although Prince Charles deputised for her at the 2013 meeting in Sri Lanka.
In a briefing document outlining the benefits of the CHOGM meeting for Belfast, Lord Rana and Brian Scott argue that the event could be worth £10 million to the Northern Ireland economy.
In total, the five-day event draws 3,500-4,000 visitors. The document says: “Many of these, coming as they do from all corners of the world, add extra time to their visit in order to learn about their host country and do some sightseeing.”
The paper argues that the long term benefits of the meeting could be seen in increased numbers of foreign students coming to the Province, opportunities for inter-university relationships, increased tourism and business deals for local firms from the more than 350 business figures who will attend.
The paper also argues that Northern Ireland’s “excellent, highly experienced security arrangements”, as well as its experience of dealing with violent extremism are important factors.