Updated at: 03/19/2013 10:39 PM
By JOSH LEDERMAN
(AP) WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and top lawmakers brought a wee bit of Ireland to Washington, donning green ties and a festive mood in a belated celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
Shamrock in his jacket pocket, Obama hosted Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny for a meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday _ two days after the official holiday, which fell on a Sunday this year. "It also gives us an excuse to stretch out St. Patrick’s Day for a couple of extra days," he said.
Saluting the close U.S.-Ireland relationship and the contributions of Irish Americans, Obama praised Kenny’s leadership through difficult economic times and said improvements in their economy helps in trade with the United States.
He met separately at the White House with the joint Protestant and Catholic leaders of neighboring Northern Ireland’s unity government, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
At the Capitol, lawmakers hosted Kenny and Obama for an annual luncheon marking St. Patrick’s Day, replete with bagpipes, green-and-white flowers and Guinness beer.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sat between Obama and Kenny, and wiped away a tear after singer Anthony Kearns of The Irish Tenors sang a tune called "O’ America."
"I’d say this is the loudest gathering of Irishmen in Washington since the last time Joe Biden dined alone," Boehner said, referring to the Irish-American vice president, who was returning from a visit to Rome. "It’s like I’m always telling the president: You only tease the ones you love."
Partisanship and a history of budget fights between the speaker and the president gave way for the day to a more lighthearted exchange. After escorting Obama down the Capitol steps to the tune of bagpipes, Boehner patted Obama on the back as he loaded his limo to return to the White House.
"We spend the whole year trying to bring this town together, and these leaders are able to do it in a single afternoon. They even get us to dress alike," Obama said. "So my question is: How long can you stay?"
He cited his mother’s ancestral hometown in the small Irish village of Moneygall, joking that he’d brought along documents to prove his claim to Irish heritage but was surprised that people were willing to take his word for it.
But Ireland’s economic challenges and the tenuous political situation in Northern Ireland formed a more somber backdrop for Kenny’s encounters with Obama and U.S. lawmakers. At the luncheon, Kenny spoke of "a time of great fragility in Northern Ireland," including violent protests and increased activity by Irish Republican Army splinter groups that have cast a shadow on prospects for reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics there.
"We do not want a situation where those (in the) minority who have bad thoughts and bad blood want to turn the days back to the dark days of the troubles," he said, referring to Northern Ireland’s decades of sectarian violence. He implored Obama and Congress to continue supporting peace and progress in Northern Ireland.
Kenny’s remarks at the lunch, like those of Obama and Boehner, were closed to reporters, but aides provided transcripts of their prepared remarks.
Obama, too, reflected on obstacles to reconciliation before his Oval Office meeting with Kenny.
"There’s a lot more work to be done before there’s true unity in that country," he said.
Police in Northern Ireland have foiled two attempts this month by IRA loyalists to fire mortar rounds at police bases. Most IRA members renounced violence and disarmed after failing to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, the traditional IRA goal.
Kenny said that Obama had signaled his intent to make another visit to Ireland, although it was unclear when that would be. Kenny said Obama’s schedule might preclude him from stopping there as part of his trip to the upcoming G8 meeting of leading industrial nations, which is scheduled for June in Northern Ireland.
Both leaders hailed European discount airline Ryanair’s announcement Tuesday that it will buy 175 jets from Chicago-based Boeing Co., which has struggled ever since its new 787 Dreamliner was grounded by regulators in January following problems with its electrical system. Ryanair’s purchase of the popular 737 jets constitutes the largest order ever placed by a European carrier.
"It’s an example how the progress made in Ireland benefits jobs and businesses here in the United States," Obama said.
At an evening reception for St. Patrick’s Day in the East Room of the White House, Kenny presented a glass bowl filled with shamrocks to the president, fulfilling an annual tradition dating back to former President Harry Truman.
Obama, feting Kenny and the leaders from Northern Ireland, reflected on the outsize influence Irish Americans will have on his second term administration.
"My new chief of staff is a McDonough. My national security adviser is a Donilon. Our new CIA director is a Brennan. My head speech writer is a Kennan," Obama said. "And Joe Biden has very kindly agreed to stay on as Irishman in chief."
Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler and Andrew Miga in Washington and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)