By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Irish government ministers on their traditional exodus to the four corners of the earth to celebrate St Patrick’s Day have been ordered by the taoiseach to sell the message that, despite the cancellation of festivities at home, Ireland remains free of foot-and-mouth disease.
Bertie Ahern will be traveling to Washington with the same message but his primary task will be to copperfasten the support and encouragement of President George W. Bush for the Northern Ireland peace process.
The presentation of the traditional bowl of shamrock at the White House on Friday will be the first time Ahern and Bush have met. The two are expected to talk privately for 30 minutes in the Oval Office after the shamrock presentation.
During his two-day visit to Washington, the taoiseach will attend a lunch hosted by the speaker of the House of Representatives, J. Dennis Hastert, on Capitol Hill, meet privately with Sen. Edwward Kennedy and also the America Ireland Fund dinner which this year is honoring Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. James Walsh.
In a tightly schedule itinerary, Ahern will arrive at Andrews Air Force Base this evening. He is expected to depart by lunchtime on Friday.
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Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh, meawnhile, has canceled a planned trip to Paris and he and Junior Minister Noel Davern will remain in Ireland to monitor the FMD situation.
The taoiseach said the visits abroad by Ministers on St. Patrick’s Day offered unparalleled opportunities to promote Ireland but this year the FMD message must also be passed on.
"I have asked ministers traveling abroad to make a special effort to promote the quality of Irish produce and in particular to stress the stringent measures we are taking to protect against any threat of FMD in this country."
The Northern Ireland peace talks and the continuing FMD crisis have also disrupted the taoiseach’s plans. His place on a trade promotion trip to Japan was taken by Tanaiste Mary Harney.
In addition to the trips abroad by Ahern and Harney, 19 ministers and former Foreign Minister David Andrews will be attending a variety of diaspora Patrick’s Day parades on different continents.
North America is the main destination, with 14 members of the government taking trans-Atlantic flights this week.
Flying to America will be the Attorney General Michael McDowell (Chicago), Environment Minister Noel Dempsey (San Francisco), Chief Whip Seamus Brennan (Savannah), and Health Minister Micheal Martin (New York).
Also bound for the U.S. are Junior ministers Bobby Molloy (Philadelphia), Liz O’Donnell (Boston), Eamon O Cuiv (Atlanta), Mary Wallace (Dallas), Danny Wallace (San Antonio), Tom Kitt (Seattle), and Eoin Ryan (New Orleans).
Doing the duties in Los Angeles is Andrews. and junior minister at Health Mary Hanafin is off to Canada.
Heading to Australia are Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen and Justice Minister John O’Donoghue.
Cowen will be at events in Canberra and Sydney. He had planned to visit Australia earlier this month at the invitation of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, but it was postponed because of the ongoing discussions on the peace process.
Bound for Argentina is Social Welfare Minister Dermot Ahern, and heading to South Africa is Marine Minister Frank Fahey.
Travelling to Asia is Education Minister Michael Woods, who will be in Malaysia and Singapore, and Junior Minister Martin Cullen, who is going to China.
Defense Minister Michael Smith will make the traditional call on the troops in the Lebanon and also visit Cyprus before traveling to Prague for the Czech Republic’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.