Amongst the usual shamrock festooned lapels and bagpipers Ahern gave a strong warning to thousands of undocumented Irish in America as he celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in the nation’s capital.
“The concept of an amnesty for people that were here for ten, twenty or thirty years – that’s not in the ball park,” said Mr. Ahern after the Speaker’s lunch on Capitol Hill hosted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and attended by President George Bush and members of congress.
“I don’t want to be gilding the lily,” continued the taoiseach when asked about his meeting earlier in the day with President Bush at the White House.
“The concept of an amnesty is not on,” he said.
Ahern’s pointed remarks included advising illegal Irish that it will not
be possible to obtain legal status without going back to Ireland and having to initiate their immigration application to become U.S. citizens from scratch.
“The concept of an amnesty, wiping the sheet clean is just, it’s not on. People shouldn’t be trying to give an impression that something that isn’t on, might be on. It’s no good saying that,” he said.
“They’re talking nonsense and that’s not just me that’s the view of all my friends here,” referring to the capitol buildings around him on the sunny and warm afternoon.
Ahern said there was some progress for Irish and American young people trying to work in one another’s countries as a two way deal for work visas appeared possible.
“What we’re looking for on student visas is like the arrangement with
Australia where eighteen to thirty, or thirty five [year-olds] . . . would be able to get a year or 15 months [visa] once renewable.”
Ahern’s remarks on immigration reform prompted a quick retort from Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform chairman Niall O’Dowd.
O’Dowd told Irish national radio, RTE, that ILIR had not sought an amnesty for the undocumented Irish but a possible solution based on a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Ireland.
The taoiseach was “misinformed,” O’Dowd said.
Earlier in the day, The Irish Echo asked White House spokeswoman Dana Perino if there was any hope that immigration reform would be taken up by President Bush before he leaves office.
“There’s things that we can do from the executive branch perspective, in terms of what we’re allowed to do in helping change the temporary worker programs that are already in existence — they’re called H-2As and H-2Bs.”
“There’s various different things, but in terms of the overall comprehensive changes that the president thinks are needed, we don’t believe that this Congress is going to take them up,” said Ms. Perino.
The taoiseach also took a forceful tone when discussing the role of
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) during the peace process.
Asked about claims by David Trimble, former leader of the UUP and others that then First Lady Hillary Clinton had not performed any substantial role in assisting the peace process, Mr. Ahern countered: “I think they’re wrong.”
“For anyone to try and question the Clinton’s huge support and try to say she wasn’t sitting down at the negotiating table – well we know she wasn’t sitting down at the negotiating table, but I think it would be very unfair for anyone to take that away from her,” he said.
St. Patrick’s Day started early for the taoiseach with a 7:30 a.m. meeting with Senator Clinton at the residence of Irish Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Collins.
They met for half an hour and discussed the peace process, policing, and how the U.S. economic woes are spilling over into the Irish economy, said a Clinton campaign official at the meeting.
The campaign official accused the Obama campaign of propagating David Trimble’s unflattering remarks about Senator Clinton’s lack of a role in the peace process.
But a current Obama campaign foreign affairs adviser went further.
“At no time did she play any role in the critical negotiations that ultimately produced the peace,” said Greg Craig, former director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office under the Bill Clinton administration, in a statement released by the Obama campaign.
The Clinton official, meanwhile, offered the Obama campaign some constitutionally questionable advice: “Obama seems to like David Trimble so much, perhaps they should think about picking him for vice president – make it the Obama/Trimble ticket.”
President Bush, for his part, promised to send a “high level” delegation to the trade and investment conference in Belfast in
May. He seemed relaxed and quipped that soon he and Bertie Ahern could kick their feet up “at the ex-leader club.”
The Taoiseach spoke briefly by phone with Senator Obama during the candidate’s campaign stop in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Ahern himself had been in Scranton Sunday night for a Friendly Sons of St. Patrick dinner.
Meanwhile, the North’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, also in Washington where he was promoting the May conference, defended Senator Clinton’s role in the peace process when queried by reporters.