We aim to follow Northern Ireland’s example: Colombian leader

Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos
Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos

The President of Colombia has hailed Northern Ireland as an inspiration that is driving him to secure peace in his own country.

Juan Manuel Santos said he told fellow Colombians to “look to Belfast” when trying to show them the dividends a peaceful future can deliver.

First Minister, Arlene Foster and the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness pictured with Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos at Stormont Castle.''Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

First Minister, Arlene Foster and the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness pictured with Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos at Stormont Castle.''Photo: Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Mr Santos asked to come to Belfast as part of his historic state visit to the UK, the first by a Colombian President.

Addressing a civic reception in Belfast’s landmark Titanic Belfast venue, the president said he wanted to travel to Northern Ireland in person to “thank and congratulate” the people.

“I have been following what you have done over the last decades, the peace process has been an inspiration to us, to me,” he said.

“I have followed the perseverance and the tenacity with which you solved this very long and terrible conflict here in Northern Ireland and it has been truly an example that I’ve been trying to follow.”

Mr Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to broker a peace deal with left-wing Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels.

Colombia has been blighted by a bitter and bloody internal conflict for decades, as Northern Ireland was before the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998 paved the way for a more peaceful future.

A number of politicians from Northern Ireland have contributed to initiatives to reach a settlement in Colombia.

Although September’s peace deal was narrowly rejected by Colombia’s citizens in a referendum, the president has extended a ceasefire with the country’s largest rebel movement to allow more time to save the proposed accord.

More than 220,000 people - mostly civilians - were killed during the 52-year conflict and more than eight million were driven from their homes.

Mr Santos said the efforts to achieve reconciliation once the violence stopped in Northern Ireland had also impressed him.

“That is even more difficult, but you have been doing a great job. I know it is ongoing, still going on, but, for us, it’s also an inspiration,” he said.

Noting the transformation that has occurred in Belfast, he added: “I tell the Colombian people ‘look what happened in Belfast, look how investment is coming in, pouring in, look at the transformation Belfast has been going through - this we can do the same if we are able to reach peace’.”

Earlier in the day, the president was welcomed to Stormont Castle by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

He shook hands with the unionist and republican leaders on the castle steps before heading inside for private discussions.

Sinn Fein veteran Mr McGuinness is a former IRA commander while Democratic Unionist leader Mrs Foster was caught up in an IRA bus bombing during the Troubles and her father was badly injured in an IRA murder bid.

Together the pair now lead the devolved power-sharing institutions forged during the region’s peace process.

Mr Santos later held a separate meeting with Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

The president’s last scheduled engagement of the day was with a number of community groups working at sectarian interfaces in north Belfast.

Mrs Foster said “peace and prosperity” were the two main items on the agenda during the discussions with the president.

“The Colombian peace process is a significant priority for their government and I know many organisations and people across Northern Ireland have helped in nudging forward the path to peace,” she said.

“It is a challenging path but one worth travelling.

“It is therefore very significant for us to be associated with a state visit to the United Kingdom and, just as Her Majesty The Queen said at Tuesday’s state banquet at Buckingham Palace, Northern Ireland is now beginning to realise its full potential.

“I hope this visit to Northern Ireland will encourage collaboration, partnership and renewed engagement between our respective business sectors.”

Mr McGuinness described the president as a “very important visitor”.

“Many of us have been very much involved over the course of recent years in supporting negotiations that were taking place in Havana between the Farc and Colombian government,” he said.

“I was in Colombia two years ago at the invitation of President Santos and spent some time with him.”

He added: “Of course we are delighted at the successful outcome of those negotiations. We know there was a disappointment about the failure of the referendum to pass but the peace process continues.

“Negotiations have recommenced and we hope that there will be a successful outcome from those negotiations.”