WASHINGTON (AP) — At a time of strained U.S.-Europe ties, President Bush has the backing of the European Union's new leader, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who pledged cooperation Wednesday in fighting terrorism. Bush announced on St. Patrick's Day that he will go to Ireland this June for an EU summit.
"Mr. President, Europe and the United States share a common determination to overcome the evils of terrorism," Ahern said as he stood by Bush's side at the White House.
Bush donned a green tie as he maintained the longstanding White House tradition of hosting the Irish leader on St. Patrick's Day and squiring him to the Capitol for a celebratory lunch. But their meetings Wednesday took on added significance with Ireland now holding the EU presidency.
Ahern gave Bush the strong backing he wanted. Ties with Europe are strained over last Thursday's terrorist bombings in Madrid. Spanish voters ousted the pro-American government in elections Sunday, and the incoming Spanish prime minister promised to return his country's focus toward Europe.
"Last week, we witnessed the willful destruction of human life in Madrid," Ahern said at the ceremony, before presenting Bush with the customary bowl full of shamrocks. "Terrorism is an affront to our democracies; it strikes at the heart of all the values of which the United States and the European Union are founded, and we're determined to ensure that our peoples are protected from this despicable scourge."
Referring to Ahern as "taoiseach," the official title for the prime minister's post and Gaelic for "chief," Bush said he too sent "condolences to the people of Spain as they remember their murdered countrymen."
"I thank you for your support in this common struggle," Bush said.
Bush also renewed his support for a new round of talks meant to advance peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday accord of 1998 outlined dozens of goals designed to end three decades of bloodshed over Northern Ireland, a British territory with a pro-British Protestant majority. Its intended cornerstone — a joint Roman Catholic-Protestant administration that included Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party — fell apart in October 2002 over an IRA spying scandal.
A new round of talks designed to restore power-sharing began last month in Belfast.
Ahern told reporters that he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair would launch a high-pressure push for agreement Tuesday in Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast. Going slower, he said, would mean "the time scale will be too long, too complicated and we (will) lose momentum."
Britain and Ireland, which have cooperated closely on Northern Ireland policy since signing a treaty in 1985, expect the Bush administration to back up their plans. Both governments consider U.S. backing important in moving Sinn Fein, which traditionally relies on Irish-Americans for support.
Bush met with Northern Ireland political leaders, among them Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
The president said he and Ahern shared a common vision for a lasting peace for the people of Northern Ireland "free of terror and intimidation."
"I call for a permanent end to all political violence," the president said. "There is no place for paramilitaries in a democratic society."
At a lunch on Capitol Hill, Bush nodded and clapped as Irish singer Moya Brennan performed three songs with a guitarist and harpist. Bush shared a table with a prominent Irish-American and a fierce critic: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
After the lunch, Brennan told The Associated Press that public opinion in Ireland about Bush is "as mixed as it is here."
"There are people who look towards leaders and think that they make right decisions or not, but I think it's an opinionated thing," she said. "But it's the president of the United States and it's an honor to sing here."