x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Emerald Isle turns red, white and blue for Barry O'Bama visit

US president Barack Obama is making a trip to the village of Moneygall, in Ireland, from where one of his great-great-great grandfathers on his mother's side emigrated to the US in 1850.

DUBLIN // US president Barack Obama has serious business in Europe this week - a state visit to Britain, G8 summit in France, security talks in Poland - but his first stop will be Dublin, with a personal agenda.

The scheduled highlight of Mr Obama's 24-hour visit to Ireland today is a trip to the village of Moneygall. It was from here that Fulmouth Kearney, one of his great-great-great grandfathers on his Kansas mother's side, emigrated to the US in 1850.

"This is a homecoming of sorts for president Obama," Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser and presidential speech writer, told the Irish Times. "He is very excited to see the small town in Ireland from which he has roots."

The small town in question has been feverishly preparing for the visit ever since Mr Obama announced it last St Patrick's Day, March 17, at the traditional White House Ball to celebrate Irish-American ties.

Yesterday, most of the houses were strung with red, white and blue bunting, and locals queued for hours to collect the printed invitations that will allow them to pass through today's tight security cordon.

About 3,000 are expected to cram into a village whose normal population is a tenth of that. A lucky few will jostle for space in Hayes' pub, where Mr Obama is widely expected to drink his obligatory pint of Guinness, and meet some distant relatives.

So small that it only has two bars, Moneygall largely vanished from the Irish consciousness several years ago when it was bypassed by the main Dublin-Limerick road. Before that, it was cursed as a traffic bottleneck.

Most of the village falls within County Offaly, meaning that Mr Obama can now, like recently defeated Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen, one of the prime architects of Ireland's spectacular financial collapse, be referred to as "Biffo".

Ireland has a rich and vitriolic humour based on regional differences; the term "Biffo" derives from an acronym in which the first two letters stand for "Big Ignorant", and the last two for "From Offaly". The "F" in the middle should not be hard to guess.

Presidential protocol note: "Biffo" is not usually used as a personal address in face-to-face conversation, for obvious reasons. However, the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, reportedly did so several times when he met Mr Cowen in Jerusalem several years ago, having been misadvised.

Americophile Ireland has long been a popular pit-stop for US presidents touring Europe, offering a rapturous welcome. John F Kennedy, the first US president of Irish Catholic ancestry, set the template in 1963, meeting a reception that would have turned the Beatles green with jealousy.

Mr Obama is at least as popular in Democratic-friendly Ireland as he is elsewhere in Europe, and he is guaranteed his share of camera-friendly adulation when he addresses an open-air concert in Dublin's College Green this afternoon.

Yet his arrival has so far been largely overshadowed in the local media by a series of other events. These include the state funeral of revered former prime minister Garrett FitzGerald yesterday, and Queen Elizabeth II's historic first visit to the Republic of Ireland, a former colony, the week before.

Mr Obama's visit, like the British Queen's, comes at a time when international political and economic circumstances seem to be pushing all three countries, the US, United Kingdom and Ireland, closer together.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, has supported Ireland's claim that it cannot meet demands from France and Germany that its 4.5 million people repay at punitive rates of interest all of the losses, estimates range from at least €70 billion (Dh363bn) to at much as €250 billion, made by Irish and European banks on the burst Irish property bubble.

Britain is also keen to enlist the Irish - unlike the British, members of the Euro currency zone - in a push to reduce the influence in Brussels of the France-Germany alliance. The US, meanwhile, is trying to use reflationary measures and public spending to jumpstart its flagging economy, which puts it at odds with the public austerity championed by Germany and France in the Euro zone.

Whatever Mr Obama says in his private talks with Taoiseach Enda Kenny today, his visit. like that of Mr Cameron, who accompanied the Queen last week. might give a little more leverage to the Irish ministers who will travel to Frankfurt later this week, seeking to renegotiate the terms of the EU's bailout for Ireland.