At the annual St Patrick’s Day White House reception, US President George Bush threw his weight behind efforts to hold all sides to the March 26th deadline for the return of a local Six-County power-sharing administration.
The reception was attended by nearly 100 people, including Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the DUP’s Ian Paisley jnr, British ruler Peter Hain and a range of US politicians with Irish connections.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and SDLP leader Mark Durkan remained in Ireland over the St Patrick’s weekend as negotiations intensified ahead of the March 26 date. DUP leader Ian Paisley is also understood to have declined an invitation to attend the annual White House event.
The centrepiece of the US administration’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations is the traditional shamrock ceremony at the White House, with 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern handing US president George Bush a bowl of shamrocks for a record tenth time.
However, a security alert sparked by an intruder in the White House grounds disrupted media coverage of the event. The unarmed man was arrested but a security lockdown prevented a planned press conference outside the building.
Earlier, Mr Ahern thanked the president for his support.
“Time is pressing,” he said. “It is our deepest wish, and one that I know you share with us, Mr President, that nothing should allow the process to falter at this final moment.”
Mr Ahern expressed the belief that Ireland was closer than at any time to the final resolution of one of the oldest conflicts in history.
Later the Taoiseach told journalists that during his meeting with the president they had an opportunity “to work out our tactics over the next week or so in relation to the North.
“We also had a meeting with Peter Hain, so hopefully we will work ahead and make great progress. We had an opportunity last night to talk to Ian Paisley jnr as well, so we all know what we have to try and do during the week and we will be making every effort we can.”
He added that the Dublin and London governments and the American administration took the same view of the necessity for a deal by March 26th.
“The date is a big date in Northern Ireland history and politics. The DUP will try and broker as many things as they can prior to that date. Nobody can blame them for that. In the end you have to make an agreement, you have to enter some compromises. So I think we will have a busy week, so hopefully we will get there on the 26th.”
Later Ian Paisley jnr said he was not focused on the calendar. “It’s not a question of a date being used to finalise everything. It’s a question of getting the conditions right and then we’ll finalise everything.”
Mr Hain said that the delay being sought by some DUP members would be “catastrophic” for the North’s politicians, including them.
“If they don’t agree to form an executive on the 26th, then that will be telling the electorate that voted so overwhelmingly on March 7th that nobody is listening to them,” he said.
“My main worry at this stage is that some of those arguing that they can sneak past the 26th will find themselves on the 27th out of a job with Stormont shut down.”