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Ahead of St. Patrick's Day, Obama hails U.S.-Irish ties

U.S. President Barack Obama and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny talk to the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington March
U.S. President Barack Obama and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny talk to the media in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington March

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama met with Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny on Friday - and even sang along to an Irish folk song - three days ahead of St. Patrick's Day as the two leaders held the annual celebration of U.S.-Irish relations.

It was all smiles in the White House Oval office as Obama welcomed Kenny and lauded the "incredible bond" between the two countries. "I think it's fair to say that there are very few countries around the world where the people-to-people ties are so strong," Obama said.

The president praised Ireland's economic progress following the financial crisis and said the two leaders discussed the Ukraine crisis. Obama also said he was disappointed that talks between the leaders of Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities broke down on December 31 without agreement to ease tensions in the British province.

The talks were a response to some of the highest levels of street violence and attacks by militant groups since a peace and power-sharing deal reached in 1998. "We're urging the parties to continue to work and negotiate," Obama said.

Kenny said he and Obama discussed U.S. immigration reform, which Ireland's prime minister said "is an issue for Ireland and for many other countries."

The Democratic-led Senate has passed immigration legislation backed by Obama that would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, but it has stalled in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

Obama and Kenny then traveled to the U.S. Capitol building for a St. Patrick's Day lunch with House Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress. As singers Gerry Timlin and Tom Kane belted out the folk song "Wild Rover," Obama bobbed his head and sang along, as did others at the event.

Obama and Boehner, on opposite sides of many political issues, smiled and bantered at the Capitol, each wearing a green necktie, donning the traditional color of Ireland.

Earlier, Vice President Joe Biden hosted Kenny at a breakfast featuring, among other things, Irish soda bread.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)