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Bertie's Big Speech

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WHEN outgoing Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern addresses a joint session of Congress this Wednesday, April 30, he is unlikely to match the drama surrounding the joint session address by war hero General Douglas Mac Arthur, after he was relieved of his command by President Harry Truman in 1951.

MacArthur concluded his speech before Congress with the immortal lines, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

Congressman Dewey Short of Missouri was so moved that he cried out, "We heard God speak here today! God in the flesh! The voice of God!"

Despite his own popularity among American politicians, Ahern is unlikely to draw the same response. He will also be hoping to avoid the embarrassing fate of Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, when the diminutive monarch addressed the joint session behind a podium which left only the top of her head visible to most in the chamber.

There have been 105 joint session speeches to Congress, the most recent by French President Nicolas Sarkozy last November. Ahern will become only the fifth person ever to address joint sessions of Congress and the British Parliament.

Taoisigh (Prime Mini-sters) Liam Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton have all spoken before Congress, while two presidents, Eamon De Valera and Sean T. O Ceallaigh, have also been accorded the honor.

Surprisingly, given the party's dominance of Irish politics, Ahern will be the first Fianna Fail taoiseach to make the address.

Of the Irish addresses, it was de Valera's speech, on May 28, 1964, that made the most impact. The aging president was visiting the U.S. soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with the extraordinary images of the latter's visit to Ireland in June 1963 still fresh in the public memory.

De Valera had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans with the beloved dead president, especially after his major role in his funeral. He was welcomed by two towering Irish American figures, House Speaker John McCormack and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. His address received what was described by commentators as "the warmest welcome ever given."

De Valera, speaking without notes for 20 minutes, thanked America profusely for its help to the nascent Irish Republic during the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I in 1919. He noted that the U.S. House had voted 216 to 41 in favor of asking the Versailles conference to look favorably on Ireland's right to self-determination.

His words on Kennedy were warm and enthusiastically cheered to the echo. ''We welcomed him, not merely because of his Irish blood, but because he was regarded by our people as a symbol of this great nation," he said.

In their speeches, Cosgrave and FitzGerald focused, in part, on criticizing Irish American backing for IRA support groups such as Irish Northern Aid. Ireland held the European presidency when Bruton spoke on September 11, 2006, and he devoted much of his speech to European Union/U.S. issues.

No doubt, like de Valera, Ahern will also pay praise to the Kennedy clan and their role in Ireland. Indeed, he may well make an announcement at some point about building even closer links between the famed family and their ancestral home.

The Irish government has been anxious, for some time, to make a major gesture to Senator Edward Kennedy, who has been an extraordinarily powerful driving force behind the Irish agenda in Congress since he first entered the Senate in 1965. This final trip by Ahern may offer that opportunity.

Like de Valera too, Ahern is expected to focus heavily on the American role in securing peace in Ireland. Rather like his address to the British Parliament, he will pay tribute to those American politicians and leaders who helped bring the process to fruition.

It is the reason why he was invited to begin with. American politicians have taken a shine to the Irish peace process, and commonly regard it as an outstanding success story in a world where many other conflicts seem to go from bad to worse.

Ahern will touch on the age-old relationship between the two countries, where an uninterrupted stream of emigrants, Protestants and Catholics, have landed on American shores since the time of George Washington's Revolutionary War.

He is also expected to bring up the issue of the Irish undocumented. He will choose his words carefully, however, after remarks he made during his previous trip to mark St. Patrick's Day went down badly with many Irish Americans.

The formal proceedings at Congress will be followed by a star-studded reception later that night at the Irish ambassador's residence.

The day will be an occasion full of pomp and circumstance for a taoiseach who is not known to savor either, but it will be America's way of bidding a fond farewell to a politician whom leaders of both parties have come to respect and trust.

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