By Jack Holland
For the Irish this St Patrick’s Day in Washington, D.C., the party could well and truly be over. It now seems almost certain that the new president, George W. Bush, will not hold the star-studded reception in the East Room of the White House that has been the highlight of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the nation’s capital for the last seven years. Indeed, even the Irish Embassy is unsure as to whether it will be able to go ahead and hold its own party, which followed that in the White House, later in the evening. Guests would usually make their way from one to the other, to continue the festivities late into the night.
"For the Irish, it’ll be a bit like Brigadoon," said a congressional leadership aid, referring to the myth of the village that disappeared into the mist.
Some believe that believing that partying being an extension of politics, this bodes ill for the Irish lobby in Washington.
The only certainties so far in D.C.’s less-than-busy St. Patrick’s Day schedule this year are the Speaker’s lunch on March 15, where the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, will be the guest, the American Ireland Fund Dinner on the 16th, and the taoiseach’s presentation of the bowl of shamrocks to the president on the morning of the 16th, a tradition that goes back over 40 years.
Ahern’s departure for Ireland that evening has thrown the Irish Embassy’s own plans for its traditional party into doubt, as has the fact that the holiday falls on a Saturday this year when most of the capital’s politicians will be back in their constituencies.
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It was President Clinton who started the tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day reception at the White House, which brought together political leaders, artists, musicians, singers, business people, Hollywood celebrities and journalists, all with an Irish connection, for an evening of song and chat and celebration. The first one took place in 1994, and had 400 guests. In March 2000, the last Clinton-hosted party, there more than twice that many. But it was the gathering of 1995 that proved the most extraordinary.
It came just six months of the first IRA cease-fire of August 1994, and brought together under the same roof of the East Room Sinn Fein leaders and prominent loyalist paramilitaries, who had declared their cease-fire in October, as well as the usual contingent of the Irish political, business and artistic establishment. The day before, at the Speaker’s lunch, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams had shaken hands with Clinton. There was a flurry of meetings between administration officials and all the major players, loyalist, republican, and nationalist, as they endeavored to cement the peace process. On one occasion, as the then-Taoiseach John Bruton was leaving a meeting with Tony Lake, the chairman of the National Security Council, he passed loyalist leaders Joe English and John McMichael on their way in. The activity helped generate a momentum that was kept up by a White House sponsored Northern Ireland investment conference the following May, also held in Washington.
In 1995, the atmosphere was full of hope. By the time the last St. Patrick’s Day hurrah came along, it had soured considerably as the Good Friday agreement ran into one problem after another that even the direct intervention of the president could not resolve. At the St. Patrick’s Day gathering last year, Clinton held talks with Adams, the UUP leader, David Trimble, as well as SDLP leader John Hume and Ahern in an attempt to break the deadlock over the decommissioning, demilitarization and policing issues that had snared progress.
"St. Patrick’s Day under Clinton was sui generis," said an Irish government official. There would be a more "cautious" approach to issues, he believed, under the new president. "There will be no more micro-managing conflict resolution situations," he said. But he emphasized that "you can’t judge the administration by the social side of things. We have solid assets to focus on."
Jeff Cleary, board member of the Irish for Bush committee and a prominent member of the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans, hopes for an announcement about the St. Patrick’s Day events "soon."
About the possibility of a White House reception, he said that "it would not upset me if it was cancelled. I wouldn’t read anything into it." He warned that Democrats might try to prove that if there is no party it is an indication that Bush "doesn’t care about Ireland."
Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley said the lack of a reception "is the clearest indication so far of how active this president will be" in Irish affairs. He said that the White House reception had provided an opportunity for all sides to get together.
"He has missed an opportunity," Crowley said. "It’s unfortunate."
In the meantime, the British perhaps seeing an opportunity to seize the party initiative, are moving ahead smartly with their own plans to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in the capital. Following a tradition which began in 1996, they are holding a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon during the week leading to the 17th . About 130 people are expected to attend.
However, their spokesman declined to comment on whether would try and eclipse the Irish in celebrating Ireland’s patron saint.