N. Ireland peace process moves forward

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NEW YORK -- The Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast voted to approve the North-South Ministerial Council, a body of legislative leaders from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that will cooperate in certain areas, including tourism.

The council was proposed last year as part of the sweeping peace accord designed to revamp Northern Ireland's political structure. In addition to tourism, the council will address agricultural and other economic concerns.

Related goals of the Northern Ireland Assembly include the creation of a public company to oversee international tourism marketing for the republic and the north. Legislation to form the company is expected next month.

Meanwhile, some U.S. operators to Northern Ireland told Travel Weekly they already are reaping the benefits of what one called the "increased comfort level" on the part of clients planning summer vacations in the British province.

Dennis Savage, senior vice president of CIE Tours in Cedar Knolls, N.J., said bookings for programs combining Ireland and Northern Ireland are well ahead of this time last year. "Our seven-night Mystical Ireland bookings are up about 15% over last year and our 13-night Irish Classic has seen a 42% increase in business," said Savage, who added that each itinerary spends four nights in the north.

He said the firm expected the surge in Ireland/Northern Ireland bookings this year. "We are encouraged by the trend, and as the [peace process continues to move forward] more people will want to visit Northern Ireland," Savage said.

New York-based Lismore Tours changed its brochure this year, removing its escorted coach programs and adding more fly-drive and chauffeured itineraries.

A spokeswoman for the company said that less-than-stellar booking levels for coach tours during the past two high seasons prompted the change. "Instead of trying to fill up coaches, we are concentrating on customizing trips for smaller groups. We find that couples and groups of four prefer to hire a driver," she said. Lismore will consider restoring coach tours next year, the spokeswoman added.

Declan O'Brien, president of Destination Ireland & Great Britain, said his firm, which specializes in custom FITs, is seeing more interest in Northern Ireland. "Advance bookings for this summer are better than last year at this time, and the peace process has made a big contribution to that," he said. "We encourage people who will be traveling in the border counties to visit Northern Ireland. We tell them to see Giants Causeway and Belfast, which has seen a real rebirth these last few years." O'Brien's company is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

David Brice, president of Golf International, in New York, said his firm's bookings are "up phenomenally" from last year.

Northern Ireland has what are widely considered some of the world's best golf courses, including Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. "The golf client is different from the tourist who wants to sightsee. There is not too much regard for local problems, so we are more sheltered from the general public's concept of what might or might not be happening," said Brice.

Despite the peace accord, Britain is not yet resting easy. Since Feb. 5, British authorities have been on heightened security alert following a threat that the Irish Republican Army might resume attacks on the British mainland.

Recent headlines in London tabloids declared Britain was on "bomb alert" and that "rebel bombers" from a renegade IRA faction were plotting another attack on London. The IRA's historic 17-month cease-fire ended three years ago this month when a bomb rocked the Docklands area of London, killing two people and wounding 100.

At issue now is the role the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, will play in the governing of Northern Ireland, and the disarming of the IRA.

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