Obama arrives for tough G8 summit in Northern Ireland

From Syria, to spying, to an angry Vladimir Putin on his plate, President Barack Obama arrived in Northern Ireland for the G8 summit today.

Evan Vucci/AP
British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes President Barack Obama to the G-8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Monday. Leaders are expected to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria, and free-trade issues.

President Obama's stop in Belfast on his way to the G8 summit was meant to be a feel-good interlude before tackling disputes over the civil war in Syria and controversy over revelations of US and UK spying at past meetings.

But while Obama's brief remarks this morning were long on congratulating the peace process, his visit was short on public engagement or enthusiasm.

On a gray, rainy Monday morning, a small crowd of no more than 300 stood outside Belfast's Waterfront Hall concert venue to hear Obama speak. Most were hoping to catch a glimpse of the US president, but the gathering was dotted with a few scattered protesters carrying Amnesty International placards and, inexplicably, a man dressed in a Superman costume.

One woman, Deirdre Montgomery, waving the Stars and Stripes, said she was there because her son, Mark, was keen to see the US president.

Despite the small turnout, a world away from near-hysterical scenes in Dublin for Obama's 2011 visit, local store owner Leonard Laverty says the public response would have been greater if a full-scale public address had been scheduled. Conversely, protestor Gabby – who declined to give her surname – said she was there to register her objection to "the globalization of American issues, the Middle East, and the Bilderberg Group."

Referring to Obama she said: "He's the most powerful man in the world, the face of it all."

Security was heavy, with some streets closed to traffic and blast-proof police vans joined by Troubles-era army Land Rovers, painted white with police livery for the occasion. But the masked anti-globalization protestors who have smashed fast food restaurants and fought with police at previous G8 summits are so far nowhere to be found.

A local political activist, who asked to remain anonymous, criticized the police operation as out of proportion and said a repeat of the chaos around the 2005 G8 summit in the UK was unlikely. "They were clearly looking toward Gleneagles, but the last few G8s have passed-off without significant protests," he said.

Tough crowd

Nonetheless Amnesty International representative Patrick Corrigan had strong words for the president.

"Four years ago president Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay. He recognized that it was a shame on America's conscience and an embarrassment to it worldwide, yet over four years he has failed to live up to his promises and by his inaction he continues to shame America's reputation," he said.

Inside, the first lady and president's speeches to an invited audience went down well, but contained little that locals haven't heard before from visiting dignitaries: peace was something to be proud of but still required work.

The Northern Ireland conflict won't be on the G8's agenda. Instead, the rather more immediate – and deadly – civil war in Syria has shot to the top of the list of issues.

The main items on the official agenda are to be taxes, transparency and trade, but British prime minister David Cameron has pushed the Syrian conflict into the summit and onto the front pages of newspapers.

At a frosty press conference at Downing Street yesterday, Cameron and Russian president Vladimir Putin attempted to put a brave face on their differences, but the looks on their actual faces spoke more than the words.

Angry Putin

Putin's words were intemperate in response to stepped up US and UK support for Syria's rebellion. Russia has been backing Syria's government.

"One does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras," he said, referring to a rebel Syrian who allegedly committed an act of canibalism. "Are these the people you want to support? Are they the ones you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to the humanitarian values preached in Europe for hundreds of years."

At least he turned-up, though. Last year the Russian president skipped the G8 summit, held at Camp David.

David Cameron attempted to downplay the differences, saying Britain and Russia shared common goals: "End[ing] the conflict, to stop Syria breaking apart, to let the Syrian people decide who governs them and to take the fight to the extremists and defeat them."

The Anglo-Russian divide on Syria isn't the only one. Cameron's own Conservative party doesn't share his enthusiasm for supporting Syrian rebels, while France and Germany are also at loggerheads over the issue, with France enthusiastic and Germany skeptical.

All eyes are now on the US president: US allegations that poison gas has been used by the Syrian government have many wondering if America will enter the war. The president previously called the use of gas a "red line" for the United States.

Other issues to be discussed will include counter-terrorism, Afghanistan and nuclear arms control.

Corporate tax is a particularly hot-button issue with the global economic slump still in full swing. Northern Ireland's finance minister, pro-British unionist politician Sammy Wilson said the Republic of Ireland's government was "stealing" tax revenue from Britain.

He is not alone in taking pot-shots at the country. Last month a US Senate subcommittee accused Californian tech giants Apple and Google of using Ireland's low corporate tax regime to avoid paying taxes due in the US. 

Irish prime minister Enda Kenny will meet with president Obama, despite the Republic of Ireland not being a member of the G8. Irish government sources say tax will not be discussed. 

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