George Bush showed little interest in Ireland but was focused on Iraq prior to 9/11

State papers: Election of new US president raised fears among Irish officials in 2001 that the White House shamrock ceremony would be scrapped

Bertie Ahern was left in no doubt at his first White House meeting with George W Bush that the new president had little interest in Northern Ireland and would adopt a far more hands-off approach than his predecessor Bill Clinton.

Ahern met Bush in the Oval Office on March 16th, 2001, ahead of the annual shamrock ceremony. Bush referred to the peace process in Northern Ireland only in passing. He introduced ambassador-at-large Richard Haass to the then taoiseach, and said Haas would be available “for issues that concern your country”.

A confidential memo of the meeting in the White House said Bush reassured Ahern that the US stood ready to respond to any indication of required assistance by the British and Irish governments. “(Bush) didn’t want to ‘butt in’ but he would be glad to help where help was needed,” stated the account of the meeting.

The record has now been declassified and has been transferred by the Department of Foreign Affairs to the National Archive where it will be available for viewing in early 2024.

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Later in the conversation Ahern raised Irish issues again saying the conflict over the previous 30 years had been “both terrible and frustrating”. He said the situation was now moving towards “coming right” and the following two years could be an opportunity to ensure peace. Ahern said Bush’s involvement could be a strong factor in helping that progress, the memo noted. “The president replied that all we had to do was ask. He had said the same to British prime minister Tony Blair.”

The change in terms of personal engagement with the issue between presidents Clinton and Bush was evident to Irish politicians and diplomats months before the new president took office in January 2001.

There were concerns that the shamrock ceremony – where the taoiseach of the day presented a bowl of shamrocks to the US president – might be discontinued during Bush’s tenure. The issue was raised by the Irish ambassador to the US, Seán Ó hUiginn, with deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley in February 2001.

At the meeting Hadley told Ó hUiginn that the policy on Ireland would remain the same but its implementation would fit the new arrangements and the style and personality of the new president. “The president’s general approach was one of informality and his way, by and large, would be to deal with his counterparts on a relaxed one-to-one basis rather than on the basis of precedents of other presidents,” Hadley told Ó hUiginn.

Turning to the shamrock ceremony, the ambassador emphasised the long-standing nature of this arrangement. He handed over to Hadley some photographs of presidents George HW Bush, Reagan and Ford receiving the shamrock bowl. He pointed out that for Irish people and for Irish-Americans, the shamrock ceremony was seen as a “particularly worthwhile tradition and there would be great and probably vocal disappointment if it were broken”.

Hadley indicated that they were seriously considering the ceremony. In the event the ceremony went ahead.

The meeting in the Oval Office was attended by the most senior members of Bush’s administration including secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Bush explained his decision several days beforehand not to reduce CO2 emissions, saying that the US got 50 per cent of its energy from coal and there was a slowdown in the economy. “A strong US economy was surely in the world’s best interests,” he argued.

Ahern referred to the Kyoto protocol and European concerns that if the 1990 figures were a base level the trend was worrying. The president interjected that the US was not walking away from Kyoto, “just not kissing”.

The meeting also revealed a preoccupation in the Bush administration with Afghanistan and Iraq six months before the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001.

Bush said he was concerned that the policy on Iraq was not working. “Saddam Hussein cared nothing about his people. But the US was being blamed for the hardships of the sanctions policy. The US motives were not understood.”

Ahern said Ireland shared the US analysis. “It was astounding that Saddam Hussein had managed to continue for so long. We would of course support action that would help to isolate him.”

Bush also expressed views on Russia and China at the meeting. He said China had a better approach in allowing economic development to proceed quickly while maintaining political stability.

Bush expressed doubt about the reforms in Russia. The note stated: “He referred to Putin’s KGB background and said his mentality remained in that framework. He would let Putin know that internal corruption prevents investment and financial help. Russia should not be selling arms to Iran.”

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