America still gets emotional over an Irish affair

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The Independent US

Every year, as the first pink shoots appear on the cherry trees of Washington, the political élite of Ireland arrives en masse in the American capital.

The mood may be sour back in the old country. But North or South, Catholic or Protestant, they come to share something more important than religion or nationality, a warm human emotion which unites them all: naked self-interest.

The St Patrick's Day festivities were well under way yesterday. They started with a breakfast meeting, followed by a lunch at the British Embassy, and then an official reception at the White House in the evening. Afterwards, anyone who could still stand would head for the Irish Embassy for the party which is the traditional climax of the evening. Sometime in the early hours of this morning, the last congressman, dribbling slightly and humming "MacNamara's Band", will have been helped to his car.

America takes the festival far more seriously than anywhere else in the world - even Ireland. For days beforehand, there are marches, parties and special offers at the supermarkets. The New York Post goes green, and so does the beer. There is the traditional march in Manhattan, led by the mayor, Rudolph Giuliani (that fine old Hibernian fellow), and the traditional counter-demonstration by gays and lesbians, who are banned from the official march.

But in Washington, a town where nobody ever does anything just for fun, the celebrations have a political hue. Here, wearing green usually means stuffing the lobbyist's dollars into an inside pocket. And it is certainly not the craic which has brought David Trimble, Gerry Adams, Peter Mandelson, Bertie Ahern and John Hume to Washington this week.

The opening salvo was fired on Thursday night, at the eighth annual dinner of the American Ireland Fund, an organisation founded by Dr Tony O'Reilly, chairman of Independent News and Media, publishers of The Independent. Bill Clinton genuinely cares about Northern Ireland, and he made a passionate appeal for peace. "I must confess as your friend that I still do not know the answers," the President said. "But I do know life is fleeting, and opportunities come, and also go. We have the chance of a lifetime here."

He was presented with a piece of Waterford crystal in the shape of the ball which dropped in Times Square on New Year's Eve, and lavished with compliments by the politicians. "Mr President, you promised to be a friend to Ireland not just on St Patrick's Day, but every day," gushed Mr Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister. "You've kept your promise magnificently."

Tony Blair could not attend, but he sent a video. Mr Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was there, smiling wanly. Any pretence that politics stops at the water's edge was very quickly brought to a halt, however. Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the Democratic Unionist leader, waved a banner attacking the IRA, and was removed.

American politicians firmly believe that there is no world conflict so intense that it cannot be resolved by having the warring parties drink tomato juice together on the White House lawn, while breathing the air of freedom, and so everyone has to play along. It is self-evident, however, that they do not have to like it. Mr Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Mr Adams, the Sein Fein president, have still not shaken hands, and they were not going to start this week.

Most British officials admit that they view St Patrick's week with grim determination, although no one will say so. The Unionists look particularly uncomfortable. The celebration is hardly a traditional Protestant one; the White House's sympathies are perceived to lie with the nationalist cause, not with Mr Trimble; and the festivities are targeted at America's Catholic voters. Even the Washington Times, which has more time for the Unionists than most newspapers, turned green, not orange yesterday.

But there is political advantage in turning up. Mr Adams's first invitation to the United States was a dramatic boost to his legitimacy. America is a massive donor to Ireland. Mr Trimble at least gets heard. Britain makes sure that it does not get outflanked by the White House as it has been in the past. Indeed, everybody gets something. Hillary Rodham Clinton was very much present at the Ireland Fund dinner; after all, she is now seeking the US Senate seat for New York.

Serious discussions were also under way, as a series of meetings were convened at the White House. But the chances of a political breakthrough on Northern Ireland, amidst the party snacks and ceilidh music, are pitifully slim.

The issue, of course, is guns; and President Clinton made a plea on the subject earlier this week. "We're just trying to keep children alive," he said, calling for urgent action. But that was in a speech on gun control in the US. And if the President cannot persuade his own people to limit gun purchases to one a week, what hope does he have in Northern Ireland?