Ireland still a priority for Obama, says White House official

Chief of staff says new US ambassador is ‘close personal friend’ of president

 US President Barack Obama: Ireland and Northern Irish affairs remain a personal priority for him, according to his chief of staff Denis McDonough

US President Barack Obama: Ireland and Northern Irish affairs remain a personal priority for him, according to his chief of staff Denis McDonough

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

Ireland and Northern Irish affairs remain a “fundamental national priority” for the US and “a personal priority” for President Barack Obama, despite the delay in naming a new ambassador, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said last night.

Asked whether the long delay was a reflection that Ireland and Northern Ireland were less of a priority for the Obama administration, Mr McDonough said: “No, absolutely not.”

The White House nominated Missouri lawyer Kevin O’Malley as the next US ambassador earlier this month, 18 months after the previous ambassador, Dan Rooney, left the role, marking the end of the longest period that the role had remained vacant in the countries’ history.

“There is a thorough nomination process and we were very serious about this, and we obviously look forward now, because of the importance of the matters that you raised, to his swift confirmation,” Mr McDonough said.

Surprise

Mr Obama’s most senior official spoke to reporters for Irish and Irish-American media about the new ambassador “having seen some of the reporting on Kevin O’Malley”.

The selection of the experienced Missouri attorney and former federal prosecutor caused surprise because he is a relatively unknown figure in the Irish-American community, at least outside of the American midwest.

Mr McDonough said it was “always a concern” nominating someone who was not well known because the White House wanted to ensure that people understood the importance that the administration attaches to the relationship.

“Am I worried about it? I get paid to worry, so I worry a lot. But I also know that the more people get to know Kevin, the more impressed they will be by him,” he told reporters on a conference call.

“That is why the president is so confident that when the Senate confirms him, he will be an excellent ambassador reflecting his personal commitment to this relationship.”

Leader

Mr Obama’s chief of staff described Mr O’Malley as “a leader in his field” and as a former Catholic seminarian he would have “a strong understanding of the cultural importance of religion in Ireland . . .

“He is a close personal friend of the president which, as with ambassador Rooney, was something that was quite important to the president in this nomination.”

Mr McDonough said he believed people would be impressed with not only Mr O’Malley’s capabilities but his commitment to the relationship and the vital importance the US ambassador plays in Ireland and communicating to “friends of Ireland” the importance the president attaches to the relationship.

Asked about the Northern Irish talks chaired by former US diplomat Richard Haass and other policy issues that Mr O’Malley might concentrate on as ambassador, Mr McDonough declined to comment, saying it would be premature to discuss expectations for the new ambassador while he was “in the throes” of the Senate confirmation process.