Erin goin' nowhere

DUBLIN — “Oh Paddy dear, an’ did ye hear, the news that’s goin’ round? ... No more St. Patrick’s Day we’ll keep … ”

It hasn’t quite come to that, as foretold in the old Irish ballad, "The Wearing o’ the Green," but several Irish government ministers are having to change their plans.

The number of cabinet members being dispatched to foreign parts to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the diaspora has been cut this year from 30 to 17, in the face of public anger over taxpayers’ money being used for "junkets" in these recessionary times.

So, sorry Mexico, Argentina, Malaysia, China and South Africa — you are not to be honored this year with the presence of even a junior member of the Irish government.

Of all the annual St. Patrick’s Day outings, which are promoted by the government as a way to showcase Ireland abroad, one has the country’s full support: The visit of Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen to Washington.

For several decades it has been the practice that every March 17 the taoiseach presents the U.S. president with a bowl of shamrock to mark the close ties between America and the "Old Country."

This guaranteed annual access to the White House is the envy of other small countries. It became the occasion for big parties during the presidency of Bill Clinton, and the tradition was carried on by George W. Bush, though on a more modest scale.

At one famous St. Patrick’s Day reception in 1994, Clinton served Blarney cheese, chocolate bowler hats and Irish coffee cake for several hundred celebrity guests, and ended up singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" with then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Irish politician John Hume.

There was some concern this year that President Obama might break with tradition, and considerable relief when the White House confirmed — with just a month to go — that not only would he receive Cowen but would stage a bit of a hooley himself, complete with traditional musicians, such as Margaret McCarthy from Cork who plays the fiddle and performs Irish dancing at the same time.

The unique Irish access in Washington extends to top lawmakers in Congress, many of whom don green ties on St. Patrick’s Day for a lunch in honor of the visiting Irish delegation.

It will, however, be a rather somber series of visits abroad this year, given the economic catastrophe in Ireland that has stripped public services, created long unemployment lines and left thousands of people with home loans they cannot repay.

Cowen justified maintaining half of the usual ministerial trips — to cities such as Chicago, Houston, Toronto, London, Paris, Rome and Sydney — as the best way to tell the world that Ireland has “a clear and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the impact of the economic crisis.”

Reacting to tabloid headlines in Dublin such as “Let the Paddy’s Day junkets begin as ministers globetrot,” Cowen said that the trips provided cabinet members with an unparalleled opportunity to nurture the country’s "unique global connections" as it struggles to regain economic growth.

Opposition members of the Irish parliament have criticized the money spent on hotels and airfare, with the notable exception of independent Sen. Joe O’Toole, who argued that it's never been more necessary to promote the economy abroad.

“If that means going over there [to the U.S.] and sloshing horrible-tasting green beer, shaking hands with the ancient order of this, that or the other thing, or meeting the various brotherhoods, then so be it,” he said.

The renewed violence in Northern Ireland has also cast a shadow over this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, twice postponed a visit to the United States after two soldiers and a policeman were killed by dissident republican terrorists.

Originally intended to boost U.S. investment, their joint appearances in Washington, New York and Los Angeles this week now will be a demonstration that both communities in Northern Ireland are united against a return to the erstwhile "Troubles" that caused 3,466 deaths.

Robinson is a member of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and McGuinness of Sinn Fein is a former IRA commander.

On March 10, the once-bitter political foes stood shoulder to shoulder with the commander of the Northern Ireland Police Service (PSNI), Hugh Orde, to call for the apprehension of those who killed the soldiers and policeman.

McGuinness — who once organized attacks on Northern Ireland’s old police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and who now argues that there is a peaceful way to achieve Irish unity — called the splinter groups “traitors to the island of Ireland.”

The clear message he brings to any Irish Americans who might still support the use of violence in Northern Ireland is that “the war is over,” with all that that entails, including full support for the police.

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