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Ireland’s New Leaders Feted In U.S. For St Pat’s Day

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DUBLIN (AP) — The newly elected leaders of debt-crippled Ireland arrived Wednesday in the United States on an annual mission to capitalize on St. Patrick’s Day.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny — who rose to power on a promise to renegotiate terms of Ireland’s EU-IMF bailout — said his top priority is to reassure American leaders that Ireland remains a good base for U.S. companies, despite the country’s desperate finances and European pressure to raise its business taxes.

Ireland’s government typically fans out worldwide each St. Patrick’s Day. This year Kenny has sharply curtailed the size of the PR offensive because of Ireland’s debt crisis.

Nine government ministers this week are promoting Ireland from London to Sydney. The previous government — obliterated in Ireland’s Feb. 25 election after driving the nation toward bankruptcy — sent 22 last year.

Kenny and his deputy, Foreign and Trade Minister Eamon Gilmore, traveled overnight in the Irish government’s only jet to Andrews Air Force Base. Gilmore immediately was driven to New York City where he will be guest of honor at Thursday’s flagship St. Patrick’s Day parade.

For Kenny, the Washington exposure will put the soft-spoken former teacher on an international stage for the first time. His low profile was reflected in recent coverage of his party’s victory, with The New York Times describing him as a Ms. and a Reuters photo caption rebranding him “Edna.”

Kenny and his wife, Fionnuala, are spending two days in Washington being feted by President Barack Obama at the White House, Vice President Joe Biden at his Naval Observatory residence, and congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. Kenny’s major event Wednesday is a speech to an American Ireland Fund gala honoring Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who fronts an Irish rock band.

For most of the past two decades, the Irish political elite has invaded Washington each St. Patrick’s Day focused on advancing a peace settlement for Northern Ireland. That process has delivered a stable Catholic-Protestant report for the British territory — and now it’s the Republic of Ireland in the firing line.

The strongest part of the Irish economy is its 950 foreign high-tech companies, including 600 from the United States, that provide about 5 percent of jobs and 20 percent of gross domestic product.

But the eurozone heavyweights, France and Germany, are pressing Ireland to raise its 12.5 percent business tax — less than half the rates in force in America and most of Europe — to combat Ireland’s Europe-worst deficit. Many of the American companies were wooed to Ireland because of its attractive tax policy.

Kenny insists he won’t raise business tax in exchange for any improvements to Ireland’s bailout deal negotiated with the European Union and Washington-based International Monetary Fund. That November agreement provides Ireland a potential €67.5 billion ($92 billion) credit line at an average interest rate of 5.8 percent — too high, Kenny insists, for Ireland to avoid falling ever deeper into debt.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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