More important, they come to be seen with the reigning president, to get a few minutes of his precious time to give their line, or push their agenda, in the hope of getting a response that will be used to prove that their policies have the important endorsement of the most powerful nation on earth.
There was a time when the St. Patrick’s Day affair in the nation’s capital was a relatively modest affair, with the taoiseach giving his crystal bowl full of shamrocks to the president, and everybody indulging in a few platitudes about Ireland and its contributions over the years to America. But since the peace process, that has changed. The St. Patrick’s Day visit to Washington became a pivot for the hopes of those involved. That was mainly because President Clinton made a decision to put Northern Ireland on his administration’s agenda. Though it has slipped down that of his successor, it is still there, which is a good thing.
Apart from everything else, it focuses the minds of Ireland’s political leaders, who have to parade before a wider, much less provincial audience than that which they usually address. Something that goes down well in Ballymena or West Belfast might not sound so resounding in Washington. By taking politicians out of the sectarian ghetto of Northern Ireland, might, it is hoped, allow them to see their problems in a broader context. It might also, when they see the enormity of the problems confront the U.S., encourage them to put their own in perspective.
At the same time, the benefits do not flow entirely one way. In this case, President Bush, who because of his stance on Iraq is more used to being denounced in so many capitals around the world as a warmonger, has the opportunity to be seen endorsing a (relatively) successful peace process, one which owes a lot to U.S. intervention. For Bush, it is almost risk free. It is a process that in spite of its many hitches cannot go disastrously wrong as did the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Meanwhile, the administration can find time from the dire problems facing it to give the necessary nudge to the recalcitrant parties that the time has come to take the process they have been engaged in for almost a decade to its logical conclusion. As the U.S. gets ready to begin a new war, it can still remind the Northern Ireland leaders that theirs is well and truly over, and that it is time to face that fact.