ENNIS, Ireland – Despite generations of warm feelings between Americans and the Irish, President Bush received a less-than-hearty welcome when he set foot in Ireland on Friday evening, with thousands of protesters around the country demonstrating against his actions in Iraq.
Bush was stopping in Ireland for a one-day summit with European Union leaders before traveling to Turkey for a summit with NATO leaders. The two visits will cap a month-long diplomatic offensive by the president to heal wounds over the war in Iraq before concentrating his efforts in the summer and fall on winning re-election.
U.S. officials insist there is important business to be done at the twin summits. But with all sides expecting no significant progress toward new troop or financial commitments to assist U.S.-led forces in Iraq, the trip is increasingly seen as a struggle between local populations eager to register their dismay with Washington’s policies and a White House determined to avoid confrontation over the past. The stopover was Bush’s first visit to Ireland, which generally greets U.S. presidents effusively, remembering the generations of Irish who fled famine and poverty to make new lives in the United States. Such visits have usually generated heartwarming photos of U.S. presidents visiting ancestral homes or sipping beer with the locals.
But Bush is not expected to be seen in a pub during the trip, and not just because he doesn’t drink. The Irish government has deployed 2,000 troops and 4,000 police officers to lock down access to Shannon Airport and nearby Dromoland Castle, the medieval fortress and exclusive golf resort in western Ireland where Bush will spend the night and hold meetings today with EU leaders.
The first of those will be Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who greeted Bush at Dromoland and joined him for a walk in the rain as the day waned.
Local newspapers ran pictures of long lines of tanks rolling down Irish roads toward Shannon, where Bush touched down Friday. News reports described the security operation as the largest in the country’s history.
Thousands of protesters set up a camp outside the security cordon around Shannon, with local shops donating food and passing vehicles honking in solidarity. Naval vessels patrolled the nearby Shannon estuary, arresting three would-be protesters hoping to make their views known from offshore.
All of that was invisible to Bush.
During the 10-minute motorcade from the airport to Dromoland Castle, the president and his motorcade only glimpsed protesters once – a small group 500 yards away at the end of a shuttered city street.
Other rallies – pointedly anti-Bush, not anti-American – took place in cities across Ireland, including Galway, Waterford, Tralee, Sligo and Dublin, where police estimated that 10,000 gathered in the city center, presided over by the city’s new mayor, Michael Conaghan.
Major Irish papers appealed for moderation.
“For many of the demonstrators who will be out to greet President Bush to Ireland this evening and tomorrow, it will be equivalent to a visit from the Devil Incarnate,” wrote the Irish Independent. “But whatever one thinks of the initial U.S. decision to invade, … reasoned debate is now more necessary than ever.”
Still, the usual Irish-U.S. bonhomie appeared strained.
“The Irish – devotees of Kennedy, skeptical admirers of Reagan, rapturous cheerleaders for Clinton – have fallen out of love with the American presidency,” Stefanie Marsh wrote in a commentary in the Times of London. “In Ireland, an American president has for the first time become an overwhelming figure of hate.”
A major reason was Ahern’s decision to permit the refueling of U.S. military flights for Iraq duty at Shannon. Many in Ireland opposed the war, and denounced that decision as making Ireland complicit in the decision to intervene and the deaths that followed.
In an interview with Irish television on the eve of the trip, the president testily defended his policies. Asked about the scandal over the treatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Bush said: “I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country. If they think that a few soldiers represents the entirety of America, they don’t really understand America, then.”
Administration officials hope the two summits will lead to new expressions of support from allies for postwar efforts in Iraq. The administration has stopped asking for troop commitments from allies but hopes to gain a NATO pledge to help train Iraqi forces.
Bush is scheduled to leave Ireland this afternoon for Ankara, where he will meet with Turkish officials before traveling to Istanbul on Sunday for the NATO summit.