With that declaration, outgoing taoiseach Bertie Ahern garnered a standing ovation in the House chamber of the U.S. Congress last week.
Mr. Ahern spoke with great aplomb. He concentrated on the historic success of the Northern Ireland peace agreement and the help received from Americans in fostering that effort during his forty-minute speech to a joint session of the House and Senate.
With his daughter and sister in the box of honor looking down upon him, Mr. Ahern spoke early in the speech of the plight of those Irish illegally living in the United States.
“We hope you will be able to find a solution to their plight that would enable them to regularize their status and open to them a path to permanent residency,” pleaded Ahern.
Trailed by the shadow of the Mahon tribunal’s investigation into his personal finances, Ahern came to Capitol Hill with a full contingent of family, personal friends and political allies and aides.
Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi assessed the speech as one the best ever delivered to a joint session.
“He’s a man who certainly knows his way around the English language,” she told reporters.
Ahern traced the emergence of Ireland from its economically challenged and sectarian divided past to the Republic’s present day financial and politically stable success story. He said inspiration had come through the years from such U.S. figures as President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the more recent efforts of President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell.
Ahern said he never doubted that the Good Friday agreement would triumph.
The taoiseach paused in his speech to acknowledge Sen. Edward Kennedy seated a few aisles from the front of the chamber. At the conclusion of his speech, Ahern walked directly from the well of the House to bear hug the senator who had offered four decades of congressional support for Ireland, as Congressman Patrick Kennedy son of the senators and Joan Bennett Kennedy, looked on.
Although the chamber lacked a strong showing in terms of numbers of senators and House members, nothing could dampen the spirit of Ahern and his entourage following the speech.
Whisked to the ceremonial offices of Speaker Pelosi, Ahern was pleased with himself as he enjoyed a glass of Gingered Lemonade surrounded by his greatest congressional admirers including Reps. Richard Neal, Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Jim Walsh and Rep. Joe Crowley.
“It was not only a great day for Ireland, it was for superb for the taoiseach,” said American Ireland Fund chairwoman, Loretta Brennan Glucksman, following the speech.
The last serving taoiseach to give a speech to a joint session of Congress, current EU Ambassador to the U.S. John Bruton, said he was glad Mr. Ahern had emphasized the importance of the European Union in Ireland’s development as a nation.
“Ireland should remain a leading country in the European Union,” said Bruton.
Ahern departed Capitol Hill and dropped into the White House for the last time as taoiseach for a private visit with President Bush. Asked about what weighty thoughts were on his mind as he entered the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he had more personal concerns.
“I was mostly worried about getting my daughter (Cecelia) in,” he quipped. Ahern has visited the White House a dozen times as taoiseach, sometimes at very tense moments during the Bush administration, including the day before the U.S. launched the war with Iraq, not to mention in the midst of the early revelations on the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.
At a reception at the Irish ambassador’s residence that evening, Mr. Ahern loosened up with a glass of white wine. He encouraged the evening’s guests to consider returning to help repair the beautiful backyard gardens filled with early spring grass and blooming azaleas. Perhaps the crowd could offer Ambassador Michael Collins and his wife a “dig out” the following weekend in case the party had caused damage?
“In Ireland, ‘dig out’ has another meaning,” he joked to laughter and applause.
As taoiseach, Mr. Ahern had only brought his former partner, Ms. Celia Larkin, along for social engagements. For his last hurrah in Washington as Irish prime minister, he had his daughter Cecelia, a successful writer and television producer, on his arm for the evening.
Ahern and many of his entourage decamped to Boston the next day where he announced a two million dollar gift to the Kennedy Library.
“I think the very best qualities of our Diaspora continue to be displayed in Irish-America, a culture that marries the great optimism, determination and drive of the American spirit with the creativity, good humor and generosity of approach that perhaps symbolizes the essence of what is Irish,” concluded Ahern in remarks at the library.
John Shattuck, chief executive of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said the donation would underwrite Irish Heritage Collection of the Kennedy Library Digital Archive, fund part of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and develop programs on diversity in the slain president’s memory.
During his visit to Massachusetts, Ahern also spoke at the Boston College Club, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and met with the Bay State’s governor, Deval Patrick.