Obama makes early start to British state visit

2011-05-24 07:23

London – US President Barack Obama was to begin an official two-day state visit to Britain today after charming a star-struck Ireland on the first leg of a major European tour.

Obama’s visit, which was brought forward due to a volcanic ash cloud drifting towards Britain, promises to be a more ceremonial affair than his jocular Irish trip with the queen rolling out the red carpet for the US leader.

The president will stay at Buckingham Palace, but unexpectedly spent last night at the US ambassador’s residence in London after his Irish stay was cut short over fears that Britain’s airspace could soon be disrupted.

British Prime Minister David Cameron will meet Obama for talks tomorrow, which the pair said would cement the “essential relationship” between the two nations.

“When the US and Britain stand together, our people and people around the world can become more secure and more prosperous,” the pair wrote in a joint article for today’s Times newspaper.

“Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship – for us and for the world,” they said.

The duo vowed to tackle the ongoing uprisings sweeping the Middle East.

“We will not stand by as their aspirations get crushed in a hail of bombs, bullets and mortar fire,” they promised.

“We are reluctant to use force, but when our interests and values come together, we know we have a responsibility to act,” they added.

Obama and his wife Michelle will kick off the visit on a lighter note with a lunch appointment today at Buckingham Palace, where the queen will show them around the building’s famous Picture Gallery.

After a meeting with Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Ed Miliband, the visiting guests will attend a lavish state banquet given by the queen.

Yesterday, Ireland opened its heart to Obama and the US president returned the favour, saying his ancestral homeland had a bright future despite current economic turmoil.

Obama reeled off a dose of vintage hope-fuelled rhetoric at a campaign-style rally of 25 000 people in Dublin, after downing a pint of Guinness stout in the tiny town of Moneygall, which sired his great-great-great-grandfather.

Dispensing hugs and handshakes, Obama relished the adulation of the Irish, a sharp contrast to the bitter political stew back in Washington, and struck a personal note, saying he and Michelle “felt very much at home”.

His hosts also seemed smitten. Anne Maher, a teacher who lives in Moneygall, gushed about her encounter with the world’s most powerful man.

“He held my hand, he pulled me towards him and kissed my cheek. I’m not going to wash that cheek for a lifetime – and my husband isn’t getting near it either,” Maher said.

Later, gazing out over a massive crowd, the president proclaimed Ireland would overcome a crisis which saw it go cap-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund and European Union for a bailout by roaring “is feidir linn”, his famed slogan “yes we can” in Gaelic.

“Yours is a history frequently marked by the greatest of trials and the deepest of sorrows, but yours is also a history of proud and defiant endurance,” Obama said, noting America had also endured an economic crisis.

Earlier, Obama braved rain and wind to helicopter to the County Offaly town from where his ancestor Falmouth Kearney, the humble 19-year-old son of a shoemaker, set course for the new world 160 years ago.

He met Henry Healy, a 26-year-old resident and the president’s eighth cousin, who Obama said had now been dubbed “Henry the Eighth”.

It was in the quaint room of a crowded pub that Obama relished a creamy Guinness while his wife gamely sampled a half pint.

“I just want you to know the president pays his bar tab,” Obama said after spending 25 minutes in the Ollie Hayes pub.

The only downbeat moment of the day came when the White House announced that Obama would leave for London last night instead of today to outrun the ash cloud spewing out of the Grimsvoetn volcano in Iceland.

Ireland was the first stop on a four-nation tour which will also take in the G8 summit in France and a stop in Poland, with the visit likely to be dominated by the Nato-led operation in Libya and the war in Afghanistan.

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