Opinion

Deaglán de Bréadún: Green with envy as politicians travel for St Patrick's Day

President Barack Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny hold up a bowl of shamrocks during a St Patrick's Day reception in the White House in 201. Picture by AP/Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny hold up a bowl of shamrocks during a St Patrick's Day reception in the White House in 201. Picture by AP/Susan Walsh President Barack Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny hold up a bowl of shamrocks during a St Patrick's Day reception in the White House in 201. Picture by AP/Susan Walsh

One of the few occasions where I feel envious of some politicians from this little green island is St Patrick's Day, which of course takes place this Friday. When I say "some", I am thinking mainly of those who head off to Washington DC and get into the White House for the celebrations.

I've done it myself as a journalist a few times: on four occasions in the Bill Clinton years and once during the Obama presidency.

The Clinton days were the best, because I was allowed to be part of the main crowd, whereas in Obama's time myself and other journalists were confined to a space that wasn't much bigger than a hotel cloakroom and we had to watch the "real guests" through a glass panel. I was reminded of the song I (Who Have Nothing), famously performed by Shirley Bassey, with its line about pressing your nose up against a window-pane.

The Clinton rules were more relaxed. I got to shake hands with Bill and Hilary and met other well-known people from different walks of life.

The moment that looms largest in my memory was when the man from the city of Hope, Arkansas, proceeded to recite the poetry of the Nobel prizewinner from Derry. Clinton continued for a considerable period and, since there was no sign of a screen anywhere that portrayed the words, you couldn't help being impressed by his memory but also the fact that an Irish poet's work was being recited and analysed by the world's most powerful politician.

I had the privilege as a postgrad student of being tutored by Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin. Our paths crossed numerous times in later years and he was always friendly, courteous and good-humoured. He suffered a stroke in 2006 and, whilst he was in care, the aforementioned Bill Clinton paid him a visit. The staff of the place where Heaney was being treated received advance notice by phone and you can imagine the impact it had when the former US president turned up on the doorstep.

Seamus lived on for another seven years after his illness and spoke to me about it in his typically-relaxed manner. With great amusement he told a story about getting a witty message from his fellow-poet, John Montague, who said: "Different strokes for different folks."

Some years before, when I wrote a book about the peace process leading to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, he gave his approval to name it after one of his most famous poetic lines: The Far Side of Revenge (subtitled: Making Peace in Northern Ireland).

As one of the journalists who covered those dramatic events on a day-to-day and sometimes hour-by-hour basis, I was recently invited to take part in a couple of radio programmes to mark the 25th anniversary. Naturally that sent me scuttling back to my not-so-slim volume of 448 pages, in the second edition, to refresh my memory.

In a chapter giving a day-to-day account of events leading to the Agreement, I wrote that, on Good Friday itself, April 10 1998, there was a stalemate among the Ulster Unionist Party negotiating team. As a result, UUP leader David Trimble put the terms of the Agreement to his officer board, "a more flexible group than the negotiators". This clearly helped strengthen Trimble's resolve to accept the peace settlement, whilst Jeffrey Donaldson (who also had personal commitments on the day) and others walked out.

It's an interesting coincidence that Sir Jeffrey is currently faced with a decision on whether to accept or reject the Windsor Framework that has emerged from negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol and that he recently set up a consultation panel to inform the Democratic Unionist Party's deliberations on the matter.

There is a saying in political circles: "Don't commit yourself – committee yourself instead." Indeed, it might be advisable for the DUP leader to stave off making a final decision on the Framework until after the local elections on May 18. Current figures show that the party has the largest number of council seats, at 114 out of 462, but achieving a similar result this time could be quite a challenge.

At time of writing it has been confirmed that President Joe Biden will be paying us a visit next month to mark the Good Friday anniversary and that other familiar faces will turn up as well. Meanwhile, it is reported that the leaders of the five main Stormont parties, including Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, have been invited to the White House celebrations of St Patrick's Day along with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

South of the border, a hot topic at the moment is the government's decision to end by March 31 the ban on no-fault evictions of tenants from private rented accommodation (tenants who don't pay their rent and/or engage in anti-social behaviour can't take advantage of the ban.)

In political terms it is grist to the mill of Sinn Féin whose formidable housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has predicted in the Sunday Independent that the number of homeless persons will increase by more than 12,000.

The timing of the decision by the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition is thought to have been influenced by the hope that the resulting controversy will have died down before the local and European elections – and possibly general election – next year. We'll see how things work out.