Out of America: President digs up Irish roots to woo 'greens'

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WASHINGTON - Yes, it's that time of year again. A whiff of spring is in the air and in dozens of US cities this week grown men in their thousands are decking themselves from head to foot in green for St Patrick's Day parades tomorrow. As is now equally traditional, ferocious rows have erupted along the Eastern Seaboard over whether those of minority sexual persuasions should take part. New York's 1993 parade almost came to grief until gays were excluded. This year Boston, the supreme redoubt of Irish America, has been less fortunate. Last Friday a court ruled that the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian And Bisexual Group of Boston could not legally be kept out of the march. Well, said the sponsors, no ban, no parade. Thus will half a million New Englanders be deprived of their annual fun. But Irish- Americans need not unduly fret. Their cause is prospering - and not only because of the Gerry Adams affair.

One way and another, no large European ethnic group here is quite like the Irish. None is so steadily nourished by a stream of new immigrants, legal and illegal. None (with the possible exception of the Jews) has the same interest in, and influence upon, events back in the mother country. None plays so skilfully upon wider American sympathies, born of the belief that both countries had to escape the British colonial yoke. Last, but not least, are sheer numbers.

The combined population of the Republic and Ulster is barely 5 million. But only German-Americans outnumber the 39 million US citizens who claim Irish ancestry. True, half of them may be of Protestant stock, thoroughly assimilated into old Wasp America. But that still leaves a potential 20 million-odd true-green believers. They include some of the mightiest in the land. On Capitol Hill the ranks of card-carrying Irishmen include the last two House speakers, as well as Teddy Kennedy, Pat Moynihan and a clutch of other senators. To this list, it would seem, now add William Jefferson Clinton.

At the 1993 St Patrick's dinner here, a roll-call of Irish America, the 42nd president sported an emerald handkerchief in his breast pocket and proclaimed to the dollars 5,000 ( pounds 3,300)-a-table gathering that he was 'actually part- Irish'. Researchers can trace the Clinton family tree no further than South Carolina at the start of the 19th century. But he fits the caricature. He's a born politician, whose first deed in life might have been to kiss the Blarney stone, sentimental yet calculating and more than a mite feckless. His mother Virginia's maiden name, Cassidy, is as Irish as they come.

And even if you discount gloating Hibernian hype, it's hard to deny that, if a special relationship links the US and the British Isles these days, it's the one between the White House and Dublin. As the Irish smugly note, did not Dick Spring, the Foreign Minister, get in to see the President in person during one of the busiest moments before the North American Free Trade Agreement vote, a privilege the White House has never accorded Douglas Hurd? Irish- American spirits did sag last year when, presumably under pressure from London, Mr Clinton went back on some campaign promises, shelving the idea of an envoy to Ulster and rejecting an earlier visa application from Mr Adams. But now those spirits are soaring, and every venting of British fury over the Adams visit drives them higher.

Thus to St Patrick's Day 1994, when Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, will be in the Oval office to bestow shamrock and Waterford crystal on Mr Clinton. Tradition dictates that a notable from Dublin drops by the White House each 17 March. But, say the Irish, the appearance of Mr Reynolds this time will not be mere photo-op. Certainly the bonhomie of the occasion is likely to be less ersatz than that on view after John Major's recent overnight at the same address. Mr Clinton, after all, was an impressionable Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when the British imposed direct rule on Ulster 25 years ago. Today, Mr Clinton the politician must nail down the votes of 'Reagan Democrat' Irish Americans, not to mention senators for health and welfare reform. Maybe all-consuming Whitewater is to blame, but not even the mortar attacks on Heathrow have provoked any audible White House second thoughts on the wisdom of allowing Mr Adams his visa.

A propos of Mr Clinton, British officials could be excused for rehearsing the old jokes about how virulent Irish nationalism is transmitted through the mother. As for the Irish, even without a Boston parade, there's a fair bit to celebrate this St Patrick's day

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