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President Barack Obama tapped Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney as U.S. ambassador to Ireland, marking St. Patrick’s Day with the surprise nomination and a special welcome for Irish leaders — White House fountains that ran green for a day.

Rooney is a lifelong Republican who endorsed Obama during Pennsylvania’s contentious Democratic primary last year and campaigned for him throughout the election. The president returned the favor by nominating him to the ambassador post, a move that had been the subject of almost fever-pitch speculation in Irish circles in recent days.

“I am honored and grateful that such a dedicated and accomplished individual has agreed to serve as the representative of the United States to the Irish people. Dan Rooney is an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education,” Obama said in a statement.

The 76-year-old Rooney took over the presidency of the Steelers in 1975 and is a Hall of Fame owner. His team won this year’s Super Bowl, shocking the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 on Santonio Holmes’ tiptoe catch for a touchdown with 35 seconds to play.

Rooney has received the American Ireland Fund’s lifetime achievement award.

The “Rooney Rule,” which requires any team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate, was developed by an NFL committee Rooney chaired.

On the White House grounds, First Lady Michelle Obama came up with the idea to dye the fountains on the White House’s North and South lawns green, said spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld. She was inspired by her hometown of Chicago, where the city marks the national holiday of Ireland by dyeing the river green.

Later Tuesday, Obama plans to meet with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen in the Oval Office, and then with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy, Martin McGuinness, in a less high-profile gathering in his national security adviser’s office. Administration aides singled out that trio as leaders who have resisted partisan reactions to a series of killings in Northern Ireland that threatens a decade’s break in violence.

“The president looks forward to commemorating his first St. Patrick’s Day in the White House, a celebration which serves as a reminder of the rich history of friendship that our two countries share,” said Mike Hammer, a National Security Council spokesman.

After a shamrock ceremony at the White House, Obama and the Irish leaders were attending a Capitol Hill luncheon celebrating the holiday. Then the Irish guests were invited back to the White House for a cocktail reception Tuesday night that the new president’s aides say will be equal parts diplomacy and revelry.

The evening spectacular was featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon from Northern Ireland. The White House also invited Maggie McCarthy, a traditional Irish dancer and musician from Cork, and vocal group Celtic Thunder. The Shannon Rovers, the official pipe band of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day festival, also were set to perform.

Hammer said Cowen, Robinson and McGuinness “have shown great courage and resolve as they work together to advance peace and prosperity.”

It has been a tense few weeks for those goals.

Two soldiers were fatally shot on March 7 and a policeman murdered two days later. Washington condemned the deaths as senseless acts of political obstruction aimed at destroying the stability in Northern Ireland and supported leaders who urged restraint.

Dissidents have tried to undermine the Irish Republican Army’s 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm, and Sinn Fein’s efforts to persuade Catholics to cooperate with the police force, once overwhelmingly Protestant but now more than 25 percent Catholic.

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