There was no Céad Mile Fáilte for President George W. Bush when he made his first visit to the Irish Republic.
Thousands of soldiers and police were drafted in to keep protestors away from the President and his entourage as he made a brief visit to Co. Clare at the end of June.
The biggest security operation in the history of the State was mounted for the visit, which was opposed by the majority of the people of Ireland.
Some 20,000 people demonstrated in Dublin and another 2,000 protested in Shannon during the President’s brief stay, but the anti-war activists were kept well away from the E.U.-U.S. Summit that was held in Dromoland Castle.
A convoy of tanks lined the roads from the Castle while military helicopters hovered overhead, drowning out the chants and jeers of the demonstrators. At least 4,000 police officers manned the walls of the Castle, backed up by 2,000 soldiers on the ground.
The American embassy had warned its citizens to keep away from the protests in case they turned confrontational, but there was no trouble at any of the marches.
Church leaders, trade unionists, lawyers and politicians from Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin joined in marches in Dublin and Shannon.
There were no well-wishers when the President and his wife Laura descended the steps of Air Force One shortly after 8.00 pm on Friday 25(th) June. President Bush waved for the cameras, but there was no one to wave back.
It was a far cry from the days when President Clinton attracted tens of thousands of well-wishers onto the streets.
It was left to President Mary McAleese to convey the feelings of the nation. The President told the American leader of the “deep disquiet” among the Irish people and many Europeans about the war in Iraq.
In what was described as a frank exchange of views, she spoke of her shock at what happened to Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and told the U.S. President that it was time for Western leaders to “communicate and connect” with their people.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay with President Bush. He later told reporters that he was satisfied with the response he got from the U.S. leader.
Bush didn’t seem overly upset at his unpopularity. When asked about his poor ratings in opinion polls in Europe he replied that the November election in the U.S. was the only poll that concerned him.
He was concerned, however, about how he was depicted by the Irish media. The White House lodged an official complaint with the Irish embassy in Washington, over the tone of an interview conducted by RTÉ’s U.S. correspondent, Carol Coleman.
During her interview with the President on the eve of his visit, she quizzed him about Iraq and his religious beliefs. When his answers became somewhat rambling, she intervened, to the clear annoyance of President Bush who repeatedly asked her to stop interrupting him and to allow him finish his sentence. Washington has claimed that the RTÉ reporter was disrespectful and cancelled an interview that Coleman had arranged with Laura Bush in Ireland the following day.
The Government appeared to back the Bush complaint. A spokesperson told reporters that: “it had been conveyed to the U.S. that the Irish government would be sympathetic to that view”.
The Government also tried hard to ban images of the President in his night-wear at the window of his bedroom at Dromoland Castle. The President had retired to his room within an hour of arriving at Shannon, only to be spotted, in a t-shirt and shorts fixing the curtains, by a TV crew.
Despite attempts by the Government to stop the images being broadcast, they appeared on the front page of most tabloids the following morning, and were also broadcast on TV stations abroad.
Iraq dominated the agenda at the summit. Bush acknowledged Europe’s concerns over the war but insisted: “my job is to do my job and I will do it the way I think is necessary. We will set a vision. I will lead and we’ll just let the chips fall where they may.”
The summit concluded with a joint statement from the U.S. and the E.U. expressing support for the new government in Iraq. ♦