By Jack Holland
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Though the Irish piper was missing at the East Wing visitor’s entrance, those accustomed to St. Patrick’s festivities at the White House could hardly have found any other cause for disappointment at how the new president had arranged to celebrate Ireland and Irish America on Friday, March 16.
As the visitors filtered in, reaching the spacious hallway which overlooks the front lawn, they were greeted by a troupe of young Irish dancers from the Maple School of Irish Dancing of Bethesda, Md. Ten little girls and one little boy, accompanied by a Marine band, skipped and danced to a variety of Irish melodies as the guests went by. The party leaders, including Bertie Ahern, David Trimble, John Hume, David Ervine, Monica McWilliams, and Gerry Adams all stopped to gave them appreciative looks. But only Adams went over to tell them they were doing a great job.
Another party leader was also there, smiling at the performance: the Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the anti-agreement, and some would say, anti-peace process, Democratic Unionist Party. Paisley, along with his deputy, Peter Robinson, had arrived at around 10:30 a.m. and set the cameras rolling and flashing since this was the first time that the preacher had accepted the annual invitation and deigned to throw his hulking shadow over the threshold of the White House. Why he had rejected five years of invitations from Bill Clinton to accept the first one offered by President George W. Bush can only be surmised. Perhaps Paisley felt the building had been purged of all its temptations. There would be no demon drink (the Devil’s Buttermilk, in Paisley parlance) or cavorting, pouting interns to tempt the righteous. Or perhaps it was, in the end, more a question of political temptations, traps to lure the hard liners from their thorny path of utter rejection of the Good Friday agreement and all its pomps, which he thought the new president would remove.
For whatever reason, the good reverend marched into the White House, not far behind David Trimble, who was chuckling to himself that at last the DUP leader had broken down, accepting the new reality. But Paisley spent only some minutes talking to the president, then vanished, his deputy trailing at his side. He did not partake of the refreshments (even though no alcohol was offered) in the East Wing, preferring a quick retreat to the political desert, where there are no mouth-watering odors from rolls of corn beef, fruit pies, and crab cakes which lay waiting for those who stayed to enjoy the reception.
Meanwhile, the crowd clustered in the East wing, around the presidential lectern, waiting, while President Bush met with the party leaders in sequestered conference. Time passed. The Marines arrived and began ordering the crowd to divide to form a corridor through to the lectern.
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"If they don’t move, just push them," one Marine was heard saying to the other, at which remark a few of the women looked askance, clearly not being used to such military firmness.
At 11:30, an expectant hush came over the crowd. But no President Bush. It was not until about 10 minutes later that the Irish leaders began traipsing in. First Seamus Mallon and David Trimble, the latter looking rather sheepish. Then came Gerry and David Ervine, along with Monica McWilliams. They were followed by Bertie Ahern. And then the star of the show: George W. Bush, looking trim and sprightly in a blue suit, white shirt and speckled tie, with a little badge with a shamrock motif pinned to his lapel. To a roar of approval and thunderous applause from the 250 or so invitees, he mounted the podium.
His five-minute speech on the Northern Ireland problem will go down in history as the first time that a Republican president — a man with no obvious links to or interest in an issue that for years his predecessors kept off the agenda — committed his administration so forcefully to playing a role in resolving it.
The climax came when Bush said: "The U.S. stands ready to help. It is in our national interest that there be a lasting peace in Northern Ireland."
This received a long ovation, and with good reason. It represents a remarkable U-turn in standard Republican Party policy, a change brought about by the increasingly active Irish-American lobby within the party who are determined not to allow the Democratic Party to monopolize the Irish question.
At the end of the speech, he shook hands with Ahern, gave Adams the nod, and went back out to where the Maple School of Irish Dancing troupe was bursting into life again.
Of course, there were enough naysayers and skeptics to put it all down as one of the president’s more polished and plausible performances but one without substance. No, according to the president’s supporters, who insist that continuity will be maintained. They point out that at the speaker’s lunch on March 15, Bush had gone right up to Adams and said: "An honor to meet you, Gerry." In 1995, it took Clinton 45 minutes at the same venue before a way was found of tactfully bringing the two leaders together.
Of course, in 1995 Clinton was breaking new ground. It was all very well for him to grant Adams a visa — that had proved to be controversial enough the year before — but shaking hands with a man regarded by many as a terrorist took some careful choreographing. However, the fact that a Republican president did the same without any fuss is as remarkable in its own way as a sign of how the Irish issue is now viewed compared to the 1970s and ’80s.
In the reception area, tasty nibblers elegantly arrayed were ready for the hungry. The Devil’s Buttermilk was nowhere to be found — it was either cranberry juice, orange juice, Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, water or tea and coffee.
At about 12:30 p.m., as the guests began to disperse to other parties and receptions, Jeff Cleary, a prominent member of the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans, who was one of those active in organizing support for Bush during the campaign last year, was busy handing out a family tree showing "The Irish Ancestors of President George W. Bush." He was also accepting the congratulations from his fellow Republicans (and others) for helping to organize the event.
The meantime, a stream of guests headed across town to the British Embassy where they were greeted (much to their delight) by a line of white-coated waiters bearing silver trays and inquiring: "What would you like to drink, sir?"
The tale must conclude, however, on a poignant note. At the British Embassy lunch, one reporter found himself seated a plate away from the place reserved for Mr. Peter Robinson, Paisley’s deputy. Would he appear? Alas, at 1:15, a waiter appeared at the still empty spot and without further ado removed Mr. Robinson’s plate, knives, forks, nametag and napkin. A history-making lunch was thwarted. But, of course, we should have remembered: Paisley doesn’t sup with Perfidious Albion. And nor it seems does his deputy. Pity, they missed a great meal. And lots of Devil’s Buttermilk.