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Obama hails Irish ties, names Steelers owner ambassador

Fountains run green at the White House

By Philip Elliott
Associated Press / March 18, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Call him Barack O'Bama.

As White House fountains ran green for St. Patrick's Day, the president saluted strong US-Irish ties in a warm welcome for Ireland's leaders and turned to a pivotal campaign backer, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, to fill the post of US ambassador to Ireland.

"This is an affirmation between one of the strongest bonds between peoples that exists in the world," Obama said as he met in the Oval Office with the Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen. "When you think about the history of Ireland and the enormous impact it has had on our own history, and the fact that you've had people from Ireland who have shed blood on behalf of this country's independence and its freedom, that it has had probably as much impact on our culture and our traditions as any country on earth."

And in a wee bit of blarney, Obama boasted that his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was born in Ireland, in the same county as Cowen. "We may be cousins," the president joked. "We haven't sorted that through yet."

In choosing Rooney for the ambassadorship, Obama rewarded a lifelong Republican who endorsed him during Pennsylvania's contentious Democratic primary last year and campaigned for him throughout the election. The move had been the subject of almost fever-pitch speculation in Irish circles in recent days.

Obama called the 76-year-old Rooney an "unwavering supporter of Irish peace and culture and education." "The people of Ireland I think will benefit greatly from him representing the United States there," he added.

The grandson of an Irish immigrant, Rooney in the 1970s helped found the American Ireland Fund, an organization that has raised millions for advocacy of peace and education in Ireland. His legacy is reflected in a Steelers-themed bar in a disused linen mill in one of the roughest parts of northwest Belfast.

From appearance to agenda, the White House was in an unmistakable Irish mood.

Michelle Obama came up with the idea to dye the fountains on the White House's North and South lawns green, said spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld.

She was inspired by her hometown of Chicago, where the city marks the national holiday of Ireland by dyeing the river green.

The president took part in a shamrock ceremony at the White House, and then was meeting with Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, in a less high-profile gathering in his national security adviser's office.

Administration aides have singled out Cowen, Robinson, and McGuinness as leaders who have resisted partisan reaction to killings in Northern Ireland that threaten a decade's break in the violence.

The grandson of an Irish immigrant, Dan Rooney in the 1970s helped found the American Ireland Fund.

'unwavering supporter'

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