White House Welcomes Irish Leaders

President Bush speaks as Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern looks on during a ceremony marking St. Patrick's Day in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Friday, March 17, 2006 in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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 George W. 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 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, were having lunch with Irish government leaders and Northern Ireland political figures.

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 on the guest list 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.

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.