The taoiseach, with a big smile, says to the president, “What are you doing for St. Valentine’s Day?” Bush, grinning broadly, replies: “We’re planning a massacre.”
Well, as it turned out, the only St. Valentine’s Day Massacre still belongs to Chicago in 1929, when six members of Bugs Moran’s North Siders gang met their maker courtesy of Al Capone.
The U.S., as it turned out, did not attack Iraq on the day honoring the saint who died for the noblest of human emotions.
The problem for Ahern now is that the war against Saddam Hussein could start on or close to St. Patrick’s Day and that he might be standing in the White House clutching a bowl of shamrock as the first cruise missiles hit Baghdad.
Talk about a conversation stopper.
Ahern is due to present his bowl and best wishes to Bush on Thursday, March 13. He could open the chat by saying that he’s not one of the opinion-polled Irish who are more afraid of the 43rd president than the “Butcher of Baghdad.” That should get things warmed up nicely. Then again . . .
No matter what is said, or not said, Ahern would appear to be heading into what is potentially the most delicate encounter between an Irish prime minister and a U.S. president in the history of relations between the countries.
Ahern has been boxing cleverly in the run-up to the White House meeting. By coming out last week with a clearly enunciated Irish position on the matter of a war against Iraq, Ahern has signaled his views to his American hosts well in advance of his arrival.
Ahern described a second UN Security Council resolution on Iraq as being “a political imperative.” Concise words indeed from a man who many say is a master of the political art of speaking long but not committing to very much.
Indeed, Ahern was given a hard time from opposition members of the D_il, this based on their contention that the taoiseach called for the second resolution only after the U.S. and British governments signaled that they were going to draw one up anyway.
This second resolution is also seen as being just an automatic trigger for enforcing the first Security Council move, Resolution 1441, which was signed by Ireland during its recent rotating membership of the 15-member council.
Various reports now suggest that the return to the UN for more debate will mean no attack against Iraq until mid-March. A recent USA Today headline, “New War Target: Mid-March,” pointed to such a scenario.
With Ahern having laid out his position so boldly, nobody in Washington should be surprised if he avoids coming across as an unquestioning cheerleader for the Bush administration’s interpretation of what now constitutes a mandate for war. But that won’t necessarily be the most important issue as far as the administration is concerned.
On the issue of Shannon’s use by the U.S. military, a well-placed source said that Ahern will find some way of leaving the way open to continued American use of the County Clare airport regardless of whether a second resolution is adopted by the Security Council.
The fact that the U.S. simply presents a follow-up resolution to 1441 should be enough for Ahern and Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, the source suggested. Failure, in this case, is an option.
Ahern and Cowen, who many see as Ahern’s successor as leader of Fianna F_il, have been a hard-knuckle tag team on both the North and the Middle East. Their latest ring victory was in hauling party backbenchers into line in support of the U.S. stance against Iraq and the use of Shannon.
In various interviews, and meetings with party members, Ahern has been pointing to the importance of U.S. economic investment in Ireland as a starting point for offering more than just verbal support to the U.S.
Washington’s role in the North peace process is also a factor.
“All the taoiseach has been saying is that we have our interests and that we have to keep those interests in mind,” a government source said.
Ahern and Cowen have also been repeatedly pointing to the primacy of the UN in solving global troubles. This is fine as far as it goes. Ireland has been a UN boy scout for many years, champion of the world body’s highest aspirations and frequent contributor to peacekeeping missions in far-flung places. But if the U.S. does launch the mother of all unilateral battles, the place once dubbed “a theater of the absurd” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan could end up being the empty vessel so many believe it is anyway.
Ahern has been accused of fence sitting by the opposition, but Ireland’s piggy in the middle position is a natural one, politically, economically and geographically. The days of having nothing to lose as a result of taking a literal, near monastic, view of neutrality are long gone.
So the chat over the Shamrock is certain to be substantial. The X factor, the parachute perhaps, is the North. If Ahern prefers not to mention the war, impending or already under way, he can impress Bush with his intimate grasp of the intricacies and absurdities of peace-process politics.
Ahern will be coming fresh from a scheduled March 3 summit with Tony Blair and all sides in the process will be facing into the March 21 cutoff date for North local elections.
Of course, if all hell breaks lose in the Middle East, even a breakthrough in the North is going to be relegated to the also-ran category.
Barring a breakthrough in the North, and if nobody wants to mention the war, Ahern could raise the matter of a presidential visit to Ireland. Now there’s a story with legs.