US President George Bush said that “more progress can and will be made” in the north of Ireland during the annual gathering of politicians in the White House for St Patrick’s Day.
“There’s more work to be done,” he said. “The devolution of policing is important, and we support that. But we can also help by sending a clear signal that we`re interested in investment opportunities.”
He said the US would send a `high level delegation` to the economic conference in Belfast in May which will also be attended by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told President Bush that ten years after his first St Patrick’s Day visit he could now say that peace had been achieved in Ireland.
Speaking after the two leaders took part in the traditional St Patrick’s Day gift of shamrock, Mr Ahern said: “On so many occasions over the years I wondered whether we could one day return here with news of a process completed, of success finally achieved. This morning, Mr. President, I am enormously pleased, and proud, to stand here and say to you: peace had been achieved in Ireland.”
The Taoiseach thanked President Bush for the role he played, citing the three envoys appointed to the north of Ireland.
Mr Ahern said he was looking forward to the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive, as was agreed at St Andrews. “This will be the last piece in the jigsaw that will give us the durable peace and prosperity we have been working for all these years.”
The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams were among around 100 invited guests.
Speaking after the White House event, Mr. Adams said “the overwhelming majority” of people in the north want the transfer of powers on policing and justice to go ahead, despite the current opposition of the unionist DUP.
“So do the people of the rest of Ireland. So too do the Irish and British governments. President Bush’s support for this is very welcome.
“It is clear that there is a consensus position on the imperative of moving ahead with the transfer of policing and justice powers, and no good reason for the DUP to stall any longer on fulfilling their obligations under the St. Andrew’s Agreement.”
The North’s First Minister, the DUP leader Ian Paisley, who recently announced his resignation from the posts in May, did not attend the White House reception.
Although the events were less politically charged than recent years, there was some controversy over the Taoiseach’s dismissive attitude to the campaign to legalise the undocumented Irish living in the US.
Speaking to reporters in Washington, Mr Ahern said: “The concept of an amnesty, wiping the sheet clean, is just not on.” If a new visa scheme could be agreed, he said people would have “to return to [Ireland]” and hope to be successful with fresh applications.
Describing the Taoiseach as “totally misinformed” on the issue, the chairman of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, Niall O’Dowd, said: “What we’ve been seeking is what we sought previously when we achieved the Morrison and Donnelly visas and in all those cases it is safe to say the same scepticism existed from the Irish Government at the time and yet we persisted and achieved the desired result.”
Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty questioned Ahern’s commitment to solving the problem of the undocumented Irish.
“It should not simply be the case that Bertie mentions it to George W Bush when he meets him in the Whitehouse on St. Patricks Day,” he said.
“There needs to be consistent lobbying of all Senators and Congress members in support of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform campaign and the plight of the undocumented must be continuously highlighted.
“The plight of one man from my own County of Donegal was highlighted recently when he was taken off a bus and jailed after a routine ID check. The reality is that this can happen to any one of the 40,000 at any particular time. This particular young man has been incarcerated for well over a week now and I would call on the relevant authorities including the Irish consulate to do all that they can to ensure his release.
“The Government Parties and Fianna Fail in particular must show a commitment to this campaign.”