Bertie Ahern said in her first White House meeting with George W. Bush that the new president had little interest in Northern Ireland and had adopted a far more hands-off approach than his predecessor, Bill Clinton. I had no doubt that he would.
Mr. Ahern met with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office on March 16, 2001, prior to the annual Shamrock Ceremony. President Bush mentioned the Northern Ireland peace process only in passing. He introduced then-Ambassador Richard Haas to the Doshu ambassador, saying Haas would be available to deal with “issues that concern your country.”
Confidential notes from the White House meeting show that President Bush reassured Mr. Ahern that the United States was ready to respond to any signs of necessary support from the British and Irish governments. “[Bush]did not want to ‘intervene,’ but was willing to help where help was needed,” the transcript of the meeting said.
The records have now been declassified and transferred by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the National Archives, where they are expected to be available for inspection in early 2024.
Later in the conversation, Mr Ahern brought up the issue of Ireland again, saying the past 30 years of conflict had been “horrible and frustrating”. He said the situation was now heading in the “right direction” and the next two years could be an opportunity to secure peace. Mr. Ahern said in the memo that Mr. Bush’s involvement could be a powerful factor in helping that progress. “The president responded that all we have to do is ask. He said the same thing to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.”
The shift in personal engagement with this issue between Presidents Clinton and Bush was evident to Irish politicians and diplomats in the months before the new president took office in January 2001.
There were concerns that the Shamrock Ceremony, in which a Taoist priest at the time presented a cup of shamrock to the US president, would be canceled during President Bush’s term. The issue was raised in February 2001 by the Irish Ambassador to the United States, Seán Ó Huiggin, together with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
During the meeting, Mr Hadley told Ó Huiggin that Irish policy would not change, but that its implementation would suit the new arrangements and the style and personality of the new president. “The president’s general approach will be informal, and his approach will generally be to deal with his opponents on a relaxed, one-on-one basis, rather than building on precedent from other presidents,” Hadley said. He told Oh Huigin.
Turning to the Shamrock Ceremony, the Ambassador emphasized the long-standing nature of this arrangement. He handed Mr. Hadley several photos of Presidents George H. W. Bush, Reagan and Ford receiving the Shamrock Bowl. He noted that for Irish and Irish-Americans, the Shamrock ceremony is a “particularly valued tradition, and if it were to be broken there would probably be great disappointment.”
Mr Hadley indicated he was seriously considering holding a ceremony. A ceremony was held at the event.
The Oval Office meeting was attended by the most senior members of the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Days earlier, President Bush had explained his decision not to reduce CO2 emissions by saying the US gets 50% of its energy from coal and the economy is slowing. “A strong U.S. economy has undoubtedly been the world’s greatest benefit,” he argued.
Mr Ahern referred to the Kyoto Protocol and European concerns that if the 1990 figures were the baseline, the trend was worrying. The president interjected that the United States “just didn’t kiss” and had no intention of leaving Kyoto.
The meeting also revealed that the Bush administration had been interested in Afghanistan and Iraq for six months before the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
President Bush said he was concerned that Iraq policy was not working. “Saddam Hussein cared nothing for his own people. But the United States was blamed for the difficulties of the sanctions policy. The United States’ motives were not understood.”
Mr Ahern said Ireland also shared the US analysis. “It was surprising that Saddam Hussein remained active for so long. Of course we support actions to isolate him.”
President Bush also expressed his views on Russia and China during the meeting. He said China has a better approach to speeding up economic development while maintaining political stability.
President Bush expressed doubts about Russia’s reforms. The memo stated: “He referred to Putin’s KGB background and said his mentality remains within that framework. He intends to let Putin know that internal corruption is hindering investment and funding. .Russia should not sell weapons to Iran.”