Anti-war TDs vow to boycott Howard's appearance in the Dail
AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister John Howard has brushed aside the threat of boycotts or protests by some TDs as he prepares to address the Dail this evening.
Green Party chairman John Gormley, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins and four Independents have expressed serious reservations about Mr Howard's visit. Some expressed regret he would not be making himself available for questions about Australia's ongoing role in Iraq.
Mr Higgins said he was boycotting the speech, partly due to Australia's involvement in the war, but also for other reasons.
But Mr Howard said it was "terrific to celebrate the joy of democracy" adding that part of its joy was "the right to peaceful and lawful dissent".
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern had talks yesterday with Mr Howard, the first Australian leader to visit Ireland since Paul Keating in 1993. Mr Ahern called it a landmark visit "in the long and shared history of our two countries".
Both sides spoke of the strong historical, cultural and trade links between Ireland and Australia, and this was later emphasised when the leaders spoke at an official dinner at Farmleigh House. The Taoiseach told his guest of honour that Ireland "greatly appreciates" Australia's continuing support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. In their earlier formal talks at government buildings, the two men had talks on the fight against terrorism, UN reform, the Middle East peace process, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear issue.
Mr Howard said Australia would "stay the distance" in Iraq, while Mr Ahern said Ireland had "facilitated Shannon all the way through. Everyone does not agree with that but once there was a clear UN resolution, that was our position."
They also discussed developments and issues of common interest in the Pacific and Asian regions. Cooperation was strong, with Mr Ahern pointing out that one of the leading contractors involved in the construction of the Luas was the Brisbane firm, Sinclair, Knight and Mertz.
"The next decade will see many more opportunities for Australian companies to compete for infrastructural projects in Ireland," he said.
Mr Ahern said the story of Australia could not be fully told without telling the story of the Irish men and women who were part of making Australia "the great nation it is today".
Much of the formal talks at government buildings concerned trade and economic links between the two countries and both leaders emphasised this at their press conference, with Mr Howard praising the "growth and vitality" of the Irish economy.
Mr Ahern briefed Mr Howard on this subject and said he would welcome more Australian businesses using Ireland as a gateway to Europe.
At last night's official dinner, the Taoiseach told Mr Howard: "Irish who went to Australia left their mark not only on the infrastructure of your great nation but also on its politics. Australia's first prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton, and many prime ministers since - including, of course, you yourself prime minister - have Irish ancestors."
He added: "I hope you and your delegation will return home with the strong conviction that, for two nations so far apart physically, we could not be closer and so in tune."