By Jack Holland
The party goes on, at least as far as St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the White House are concerned, according to reliable sources.
President George W. Bush is to go ahead after all and hold a reception. It is scheduled for around lunchtime on March 16. The new president will keep up the tradition started by President Clinton that became not only a focus for celebrations but a symbol of the administration’s increased interest in the issue of Northern Ireland.
The rumors that the tradition would die under Bush have proved to be premature.
"It’s something that the president wanted to do," said Grant Lally, national chairman of Irish for Bush Committee. "He felt it was important to reach out to the Irish community."
According to Lally, who is involved with some of the planning for the party, between 225 and 250 guests will be invited to a luncheon at the State Dining Room around noon on the 16th, just after the traditional presentation of the bowl of shamrocks by the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to the president.
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The shamrock ceremony dates back about 40 years, but the White House reception was only started under President Clinton. The first one took place in 1995 and soon became a prominent event on the capital’s social and political calendar. It brought together a wide range of figures from all political viewpoints in Ireland and the U.S., including prominent members of the paramilitary-linked parties, as well as movie stars, artists, singers, musicians and writers.
Before Ahern presents the shamrocks, in the traditional Waterford Crystal bowl, it is expected that he will spend "substantial time" with Bush, according to Jeff Cleary, a board member of the Irish for Bush Committee and a leading figure in the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans. Cleary said that the two leaders will have ample time to discuss the current problems in the peace process.
Other sources say that the Bush decision on the reception was reached after the president came under pressure from "senior Republicans" who were afraid that its cancellation would send out the wrong signal to Irish Americans, many of whom lobbied hard to make the Northern Ireland issue part of the party’s program. A month ago, when it appeared that Bush would erase the reception from the White House schedule, Democratic spokesmen pounced on it as proof that the new administration was not interested in the Irish problem, in spite of Republican protestations to the contrary.
"It is the clearest indication so far of how active this president will be" in Irish affairs, commented Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley. "He’s missed an opportunity. It’s unfortunate."
However, Republicans were afraid that the issue would become a Democratic Party issue.
"Bush was told, ‘You can’t just let it go,’ " said a source.
Both Cleary and Lally deny that the decision has anything to do with congressional politicking.
"It’s about the importance he places on the Irish peace process," Lally said.
An Irish government spokesperson said he was not surprised by Bush’s decision to go ahead with the reception. He pointed out that leading figures in the new administration have already had "detailed and substantive" talks with the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen. The North will remain on the White House agenda, he believed.
"I’m looking forward to Crowley withdrawing his prior statement," Lally said.