Hundreds of festive flowers bedeck Aras for visit


The President, Mrs McAleese, rolled out the red carpet, polished up the family silver and laid on the best china for yesterday's courtesy call by the Clinton family.

Aras An Uachtarain was bedecked with hundreds of festive flowers and several Christmas trees for the 40-minute courtesy call which was precision-planned down to the last petit four.

The visit had been three weeks in the planning, with an advance party followed by an advance party and then eight run-throughs with officials of the routine in the Aras.

Dozens of secret service men, White House staff, Irish officials and plain-clothes gardai swarmed about the house in the Phoenix Park from early morning, stomping on the ornate deeppile rugs which had to be freshly hoovered just before the Clintons arrived.

Florist Laura Donegan spent five days arranging the decorations which involved 200 poinsettia plants in red and white, 10 ornate floral arrangements, and 300 stems of flowers.

The US President was running some 35 minutes late when his black Fleetwood Cadillac with smoked windows pulled up beside the red carpet leading to the garland-draped porch of the Aras.

Mrs Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, travelled in a separate, smaller Cadillac.

The Clintons were warmly greeted by Mrs McAleese and her husband Martin before entering the foyer which was adorned with a central floral decoration based on the American flag, with red amaryllis, white lilies and blue delphiniums. In one corner stood a Christmas crib made with bark gathered from the grounds of the Aras with white figurines.

A US flag and a Tricolour stood on either side of the doorway leading up the Francini corridor, lined along one side with bronze head sculptures of past Irish presidents.

In the State reception room Mrs McAleese, dressed in a black knee-length Louise Kennedy dress and coat, invited her guests to sign the visitors' book. It was her first meeting with Mrs Clinton, and she congratulated her on her recent election to the US Senate. Mrs Clinton wore a black trouser suit with a long jacket and a pale blue open-neck shirt.

The Presidents and their spouses were then joined by Chelsea and the McAleese children, Emma (18), a first-year engineering student at UCD, and 16-year-old twins Justin and Sara who had taken the day off school.

The families lined up in front of the fireplace and grinned for a joint family portrait. Then Mrs McAleese hosted the Clintons and some Irish and American officials in the drawing room for a discussion focused on Northern Ireland.

The parties sat beneath a gilt chandelier taken from Dublin Castle and symbolising the 1801 Act of Union, with entwined garlands of roses, thistles and shamrocks representing the national symbols of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Tea, coffee, soft drinks, miniature scones and petits fours were on offer for the fireside gathering. While the Presidents and their spouses talked about the peace process, their children entertained themselves in an adjoining room away from the press gaze. The two groups then re-emerged for a brief stroll in the garden.

As the presidential entourage awaited the Clintons' departure, a reporter with RTE's Gerry Ryan show went on air with her exuberant live account of the proceedings. "There are some huge attractive security men coming out," she gushed.

Then the Clintons and the McAleeses stepped back out onto the red carpet and chatted animatedly for several more minutes. A helicopter droned overhead and President Clinton smiled and nodded vaguely when a reporter asked him if he was enjoying his visit to Ireland. There were handshakes and kisses and then one presidential family waved goodbye to another for the last time.