Enda's red-letter day as Obama gives him chance to roll out the red carpet

 

Taoiseach’s honeymoon period just got extended as US president delivers his own March 17th gift, writes MIRIAM LORDin Washington

RESIGN, TAOISEACH! Go. And go now. (If you’ve any sense.) Because things can’t get any better than this.

After a faultless lift-off last week, Taoiseach Kenny went into orbit in the Oval Office yesterday. This was Enda’s perfect day.

By the end of it, he was levitating around the White House at a reception in his honour, secure in the knowledge that his new best friend, Barack Obama, is coming to Ireland in a couple of months.

The Taoiseach’s two-day trip to Washington for the traditional St Patrick’s Day celebrations had been going rather well by the time he arrived for his appointment with Obama. But there was one big question that he needed to ask. The right answer would crown his already successful debut.

Enda left it until the very end of their meeting, as a refusal can often offend and it wouldn’t do to fall out with the President of the United State of America.

Any chance of him paying a visit to Ireland? “I guess this will be the big story of the day: I’m coming over. And I’m coming in May,” replied Obama.

Oh, happy days.

The Taoiseach’s immediate reaction was not recorded but we understand he didn’t give the president a manly thump on the chest – his usual way of expressing gratitude.

Meanwhile, a short distance away in the White House briefing room, representatives of the Irish media heard the unmistakable thud of Fine Gael handlers swooning with joy and Foreign Affairs mandarins collapsing with anxiety.

The meeting between the two leaders lasted about 35 minutes. Journalists waited outside while they held their discussions, the White House lawn bathed in sunshine on a beautiful spring day.

Bo, First Canine of America and the Obama family dog, ambled around contentedly, sniffing under the box hedging and ignoring the admiring gaze of the starstruck media tourists.

We travelled to Pennsylvania Avenue in a motorcade, which was very exciting, having been vetted more times than Bo before finally getting the nod to come inside. Our secret service minder issued yet more instructions, essentially instructing everyone not to knock anything over. (We hoped somebody had whispered the same order in Enda’s ear, given his predilection for pointing aimlessly in all directions whenever he sees a camera.) Finally, those famous white French doors were thrown open and everyone piled in.

And there was Enda, and him sitting next to Barack, making small talk underneath a big painting of George Washington. Both men wore green silk neckties and had little tufts of shamrock peeking up from their breast pockets.

The six-strong team with the Taoiseach stood to one side, beaming.

They knew the news about the visit. They included Ambassador Michael Collins, Mark Kennelly, Enda’s special adviser, Martin Fraser from the Taoiseach’s department, Niall Burgess from Foreign Affairs and Orla O’Hanrahan, deputy head of mission at the Irish Embassy.

Government press secretary Eoghan O’Neachtain gained the distinction of being the first press secretary to attend St Patrick’s Day meetings in the Oval Office with three different taoisigh.

Obama’s big desk was at one end of the room, with the two leaders seated at the other, in front of a marble fireplace and beside two big squishy sofas. There was a little occasional table scattered with knick-knacks beside each leather chair, but Obama’s table also had two heavy-duty looking phone consoles on the lower shelf. Lots of red buttons.

Mr President, lanky and languid, was the epitome of cool. He spoke of the “incredible bond” between Ireland and America. Did Enda hear what he was saying? Can a body hear after they’ve died and gone to heaven? Because that’s the way the Taoiseach looked.

Then the news we were waiting for. “I intend to come to Ireland in May . . . ” Obama said he would include a visit to the birthplace of his great, great, great, great grandfather, Moneygall in Offaly.

The Taoiseach was thrilled. And he said as much. “This visit will be rapturously received by the people of Ireland,” he declared.

“This is another great day in our country’s journey and it’s a very significant statement of confidence by the most powerful political office in the world . . . ” We could have sworn he had a very slight American twang when he began to speak. The Taoiseach must have a musical ear.

Then he invited Mr Obama to play golf with him in Ireland. He had issued a similar invitation over breakfast with vice-president Joe Biden.

After the two men had spoken, we were ushered out, a big white American eagle staring down from the plaster ceiling centerpiece, making sure we didn’t swipe anything. (There is nothing to snaffle, not even a napkin.) We stole some napkins from the vice-president’s house though. Only paper ones, but never mind.

It was an early start at Joe Biden’s house, where eggs florentine and country potatoes were on the menu for the guests. The journalists were confined to Joe’s poorhouse until breakfast was finished. The outdoor pool was covered in tarpaulin, as was the large barbecue. The VP must like to barbecue as the poorhouse fridge was stocked with nothing apart from an array of relishes and a big jar of gherkins.

The Kennys, Enda and Fionnuala, had arrived earlier to a warm welcome from Joe. Fionnuala looked great and got on like a house on fire with Joe, as they hugged on the front porch. The Taoiseach’s wife wore a linen, moss-green jacket and black trousers, teamed with a green bag with a tortoiseshell handle.

Finally, when the grub was eaten, the press corps was allowed in. A tall, familiar-looking man passed on his way out. “Hiya!” he cried, grasping the elbow of the Irish Times. “How are ya? Good to see y’all!” And he was out the door, but not before he shouted “happy St Patrick’s Day.” Senator John Kerry, so it was.

The breakfast room had deep lavender walls and five full-length windows. A silver double-handled cup was on the mantelpiece, overflowing with shamrock. The good crystal was out for Enda.

Vice-president Biden, who has silver hair, white teeth and tanned skin, talked affectionately about his late mother, Catherine. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.

Enda challenged him to a game of golf in Mayo. “The only criteria is we’re going to play on a windy day,” said the Taoiseach, who plays off a handy 13.

Obama and Biden are lucky they were only asked to play 18 holes with Enda. He usually takes favoured guests for a hike up Croagh Patrick.

It was a lovely day. Back at the White House, the Taoiseach gave a brief press conference outside the building. Delighted with himself. Floating on air.

“Right,” he began, in a brisk, businesslike fashion. “I’ve just come from the Oval Office . . . ” And he suddenly stopped, realising what he had just said and gave a little incredulous laugh.

Next stop was Capitol Hill, where speaker John Boehner didn’t live up to his name by not inviting the media in to hear him, or Obama, speak. The dreaded bagpipes put in an appearance at the foot of the famous steps.

“You’ll be brought to the Hill and walked through for the entertainment,” explained an official, as we wondered would the mere sight of us provide the entertainment or would we have to do a party piece.

The entertainment turned out to be Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill on the fiddle and guitar.

Is was such a happy day. Everyone was smiling.

There were presents handed out – a lovely crystal bowl in the shape of a boat by Wexford craftsman Fred Curtis. A bodhrán from Michael Vignoles from Claddagh for Senator Martin O’Malley, a rising political star who likes to belt out a song. Dr Jill Biden received a Maid of Erin pendant, made by Dublin goldsmith Declan Killen, and the two little Obama girls were given pretty Children of Lir pendants. (It’s the Year of Crafts in Ireland.) And Enda was impressing the Yanks with his lovely “Gaelic”. His day with Uachtaráin Obama will live in memory for a long time. Sure it must be nearly as good as Mayo winning the All-Ireland.

Or as the Taoiseach might have put it yesterday: Is mór an onóir dom an uachtaráin seo a glacadh ar son muintir na hÉireann . . .

Three cheers! Hip Hip . . .