WASHINGTON – Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern gave President Bush a bowl of shamrocks on Friday and then asked the president for more "transparency" about CIA flights over Europe.
After his St. Patrick's Day meeting with Bush, which lasted for more than two hours, Ahern renewed his commitment to seeing the implementation of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord and its central goal: power-sharing between the province's British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority.
The consensus among Irish Americans and political leaders is that "we just have to move on," Ahern said after meeting with Bush, who also visited with relatives killed in murders linked to the Irish Republican Army.
"We've seen the end of the IRA campaign," Ahern said. "We've seen the end of the arms issue. We're dealing with the criminality issue. We saw the big raids on the border last week. The politicians have to get back to the work that they were elected to, and we have to do that this year."
Ahern said he asked Bush if there was a way to bring more "transparency" to the issue of rendition. The European Union is investigating allegations that CIA agents interrogated Al Qaeda suspects at secret prisons in eastern Europe and transported some on secret flights that passed through Europe.
Ahern said that while Ireland facilitates U.S. troop movements, and is "happy to do it," there is public concern over the CIA flights.
"We've asked for the president's understanding and cooperation," Ahern said, adding that it would be easier for him to explain the flights in his country if he knew more about them. "We are going to continue to look at, perhaps, how we might bring more transparency to that process, if that's possible."
In the traditional trek to the White House, the prime minister gave the president a glass bowl of shamrocks, a symbol of warm U.S. relations.
"The Census Bureau tells us there are more than 34 million Americans that claim Irish ancestry," said Bush, who wore a pale green tie for the occasion. "On St. Patrick's Day, I suspect that number jumps a little bit."
Joining Ahern and Bush at the White House were the rival leaders of Roman Catholic opinion in the British territory of Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party; and Mark Durkan, whose Social Democratic and Labor Party represents moderate Catholic opinion.
Bush and Ahern talked about Iraq, Iran, Darfur, India and the Middle East. Ahern said he expressed support for immigration legislation that would benefit the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 illegal Irish immigrants in the United States.
Ahern said he backed a proposal by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., which would let illegal immigrants stay for six years if they remain employed and pay a $1,000 fine. They would then become eligible for permanent residency.
Much of their discussion focused on the killings of Robert McCartney, who was stabbed in the neck and stomach and bludgeoned with iron bars outside a Belfast pub on Jan. 30, 2005; Joseph Rafferty, who was shot dead outside his home in Dublin on April 12, 2005; and Pat Finucane, a Belfast lawyer who was shot 14 times on Feb. 12, 1989, as he sat down to a Sunday lunch.
Finucane's family and Catholic leaders have demanded a public probe into suspected involvement of British security forces in the assassination.
Ahern said he was with Bush when they met with Ester Uzell and Bart Little, Rafferty's sister and brother-in-law; and Catherine and Kathleen McCartney and Emily Hamilton, McCartney's sister, mother and aunt.
"The president is very familiar with the cases — extremely familiar — and very well-briefed on all of the cases," Ahern said. "I should say we had quite a long conversation on the Finucane case."
In a speech Thursday night, Ahern said he hoped "all parties and all communities will fully accept and participate the new beginning for policing," a reference to Sinn Fein and its Catholic supporters, which refuse to work with Northern Ireland's mostly Protestant police force.
Sinn Fein boycotts a Catholic-Protestant board that is overseeing a 10-year plan for reshaping the police force, which requires at least 50 percent of recruits to be Catholic. The Bush administration has said it won't allow Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, to raise funds directly in the United States until Sinn Fein takes its seats on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
The policy means that, while Sinn Fein's U.S. fundraising arm can collect funds from supporters, it can't do this at any events that Adams attends. Adams said this restriction meant the party had to return about $100,000 collected at a Washington breakfast that the Sinn Fein chief attended Thursday.
At that event, Adams took the unusual step of publicly criticizing Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland. "I don't have any high regard for Mitchell Reiss' input in this process," Adams said. "If it is he who is advising the president, then it's very, very bad advice."
Reiss, however, got high marks from Ahern.
"I warmly applaud the work of your special envoy, Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, as well as (U.S. Ambassador to Ireland) James Kenny."
The primary aim of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord, a joint Catholic-Protestant administration, has remained in political limbo since 2002, when a coalition collapsed over an IRA spying scandal.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, a Protestant party leader, since has refused to cooperate with Sinn Fein, the biggest party in Catholic areas, until the IRA disarms and disbands. Last year, the IRA declared its 1997 cease-fire would be permanent, then handed over weapons stockpiles to disarmament officials. But the underground group has made no signal that it intends to disband.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has been critical of the White House's handling of Sinn Fein.
"I think the administration made a mistake," King said. "I don't think everyone in the White House realizes how significant decommissioning was," he said, referring to the IRA's disarmament last September.