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Bush greets Irish leaders as St. Patrick's Day nears

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With St. Patrick's Day four days away, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern presented President Bush on Wednesday with an arrangement of shamrocks, calling the plant "a unifying emblem."

Ahern and Northern Ireland leaders -- including Protestant leader David Trimble -- are visiting Washington for annual festivities honoring Ireland's patron saint.

Bush also met with Northern Ireland leaders in the Oval Office and attended a Friends of Ireland lunch at the U.S. Capitol.

"This morning, we remember a good man who spread the gospel of peace," Bush said of St. Patrick as he addressed an audience in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

"Americans are proud of the Irish influence and grateful to our Irish friends."

Recalling the tragedy of September 11, Ahern said many Americans of Irish descent died in the terror attacks, and he reaffirmed Ireland's commitment to the war against terrorism.

"Our national day of mourning in Ireland expressed the depth of our grief at the suffering of the victims and our solidarity with the American people in the face of these unbelievably inhuman attacks," Ahern said.

"We will support in every way open to us the efforts of the international community against this deadly common threat to the very foundations of civilized society.

"We share your grief, but we salute also the spontaneous heroism shown by so many men and women in the brutal and unforeseen circumstances of these attacks," Ahern added. "On a day when so many were lost ... hope itself was not among the casualties."

The president thanked Ireland for supporting the war against terrorism, especially by freezing the assets of terrorists, and helping in rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan.

In later comments at the start of a reception in the White House East Room, Bush noted that many firefighters who lost their lives September 11 were of Irish heritage.

"They represent the best of the United States, and they displayed enormous strength and determination in the face of enormous tragedy," Bush said.

Irish-American firefighters were invited to the reception, and the New York Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums played at the conclusion of Bush's remarks.

Ahern also thanked the United States for its help in forging the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that led to hope after decades of Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland and the establishment of a power-sharing government.

Following the pact, Northern Ireland leaders are cooperating and new institutions are appearing, Ahern said.

"Even issues such as policing, which previously proved so intractable, show signs of a promising new beginning," Ahern said. "We will always recall in gratitude the names of so many who helped us."

However, he noted that "the process of peace is not yet as complete as we'd like it to be. More remains to be done."

Ahern called St. Patrick "an inspiring symbol to the process of peace and reconciliation."

St. Patrick, a Roman, was born in Britain. As a youth, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and carried off to Ireland. He escaped six years later and fled to Gaul to lead a monastic life. He then returned to Ireland to spread Christianity.

The shamrock is associated with St. Patrick's Day, March 17, because the saint is said to have used the plant with three leaves to explain the Trinity.

Ahern also noted the plant's symbolic value Wednesday.

"With the three leafs merging into one, the shamrock provides a perfect symbol of how different traditions can come together and find common cause," he said.

Bush noted that the White House was designed by someone of Irish descent, architect James Hoban, and many presidents with an Irish heritage have lived there.

"Irish Americans have shaped this country for the better," Bush said. "They still embody the spirit of public service."

Bush praised Ireland for helping Northern Ireland make strides toward peace and said ties between Ireland and the United States have become stronger, with trade quadrupling in seven years.




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