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Bush meets Irish leaders, receives shamrocks

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern used the St. Patrick’s Day ceremony at the White House to renew his commitment to seeing Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord implemented.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern used the traditional St. Patrick’s Day ceremony at the White House to renew his commitment to seeing Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace accord implemented.

“We will not be deterred from this challenge,” Ahern said after presenting President Bush with a bowl of shamrocks. “When we look back on such a dark past, we are all the more determined to deliver on the promise and hope of that indispensable agreement.”

Bush also was using St. Patrick’s Day meetings with the Irish Friday to take stock of the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland and look for ways to nudge it forward. Bush and other U.S. officials, including members of Congress, scheduled a lunch with Irish government leaders and Northern Ireland political figures.

Warm words
In the Roosevelt Room ceremony, Bush spoke warmly of U.S. relations with Ireland and Irish-Americans. “The Census Bureau tells us there are more than 34 million that claim Irish ancestry,” said Bush, who sported a pale green tie for the occasion. “On St. Patrick’s Day, I suspect that number jumps a little bit.”

Joining Ahern and Bush at the White House were the rival leaders of Roman Catholic opinion in the British territory of Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party; and Mark Durkan, whose Social Democratic and Labor Party represents moderate Catholic opinion.

Also scheduled to attend were representatives of the major Protestant party, the Democratic Unionists, but not their fiery leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley. Reg Empey was representing the once-prominent Ulster Unionists, and Britain’s secretary for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, was on hand.

Back after a year off
Bush last year barred all Northern Ireland leaders from the event in a bid to put pressure on Adams, whose party particularly desires support from Irish-Americans.

Bush administration officials said they withdrew Sinn Fein’s White House invitation for the first time since 1995 because of the Irish Republican Army’s admission its members killed Robert McCartney, a Catholic civilian, as well as allegations that the outlawed group stole $50 million worth of British pounds from a Belfast bank.

One of McCartney’s sisters, his mother and an aunt were in Washington this week for meetings with Sen. Edward Kennedy and other lawmakers. Last year, all five of McCartney’s sisters and his fiancee were guests of the White House.

The primary aim of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, a joint Catholic-Protestant administration, has remained in political limbo since 2002, when a coalition collapsed over an IRA spying scandal.

Paisley since has refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein, the biggest party in Catholic areas, until the IRA disarms and disbands. Last year, the IRA declared its 1997 cease-fire would be permanent, then handed over weapons stockpiles to disarmament officials. But the underground group has made no signal that it intends to disband.

Ahern said he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have made clear they will provide the leadership to break the deadlock and revive power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

“The path to a permanent peace has not been easy, but I believe that, step-by-step, we are steadily building that peace and setting Northern Ireland on course for the future,” Ahern said.

In a speech Thursday night, Ahern said he hoped all parties and communities will fully accept and participate the new beginning for policing, a reference to Sinn Fein and its Catholic supporters, which refuse to work with Northern Ireland’s mostly Protestant police force.

Sinn Fein boycotts a Catholic-Protestant board that is overseeing a 10-year plan for reshaping the police force, which currently requires at least 50 percent of recruits to be Catholic.

No fund-raising for Adams
The Bush administration has said it won’t allow Adams to raise funds directly in the United States until Sinn Fein takes its seats on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

The policy means that, while Sinn Fein’s U.S. fundraising arm can collect funds from supporters, it can’t do this at any events that Adams attends. Adams said this restriction meant the party had to return about $100,000 collected at a Washington breakfast that the Sinn Fein chief attended Thursday.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has been critical of the White House’s handling of Sinn Fein.

“I think the administration made a mistake,” King said. “I don’t think everyone in the White House realizes how significant decommissioning was,” he said, referring to the IRA’s disarmament last September.