Still no US ambassador to Ireland appointed after 15-month delay

Taoiseach Enda Kenny raised issue with Barack Obama at White House meeting

Former US ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Mr Rooney stood down in late 2012. Photograph: Eric Luke

Former US ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Mr Rooney stood down in late 2012. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Mar 15, 2014, 01:00

The United States has been without an ambassador in Ireland for 15 months now, the longest period the country has not had a top diplomat in Dublin.

One has to go back to 1935 and President Franklin D Roosevelt’s appointment of Alvin Mansfield Owsley as the US envoy to find a delay almost as long. Then it took 13 months.

Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Barack Obama supporter, was the last of 23 US ambassadors to have served in Dublin. He stood down on December 14th, 2012.

The formal St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House passed yesterday and there was still no announcement from President Obama naming a new ambassador.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said yesterday he had raised the issue of the vacant ambassador post with President Obama during their meeting in the Oval Office.

“Obviously, he is intent on dealing with it. It’s a matter exclusively for the president, and we hope it can be dealt with pretty soon,” Mr Kenny told reporters afterwards.

People linked to the post have included Obama campaign fundraiser and Missouri businessman Tom Carnahan, Washington-based Irish-American lawyer Mark Tuohey and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley from Chicago.

A day’s notice

On his first St Patrick’s Day in the White House in 2009, Obama named Rooney ambassador to Ireland. The Government was given less than a day’s notice of the appointment. The then Irish

ambassador in Washington Michael Collins received a call on his mobile at an Irish-American function the night before St Patrick’s Day from a senior US State Department official, Dan Fried, seeking the Government’s approval to allow the US president to make the announcement the following day. So things can move quickly, if the desire is there.

The reason for the lengthy delay in the appointment has not been officially stated.

The significance of Irish affairs in Washington has diminished significantly since the Northern Ireland peace process and the heady days of the Bill Clinton presidency, but the Irish should not take the lengthy vacancy of the ambassadorial role as too much of a slight. From a US perspective, it is more of a case of “it’s not you, it’s us”.

In a divided government where Republicans control the lower chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, and have blocking power in the upper, the Senate, the Obama administration has struggled to have routine appointments in government and judicial roles confirmed by Congress. The obstruction is a symptom of the divisions between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The Obama administration has not helped itself with Republicans, however, by rewarding political donors with prominent roles as overseas ambassadors when there are clearly better-qualified career diplomats.

Embarrassing moments

There have been some embarrassing moments during Senate confirmation hearings for Obama’s handpicks. Hotel executive and Obama campaign fundraiser George Tsunis, the administration’s nominee to be ambassador to Norway, caused uproar in Oslo when he wrongly suggested at his hearing that one of the country’s ruling coalition parties was a “fringe element

”.

The administration’s choice as ambassador to Argentina, Noah Bryson Mamet, admitted to a Senate committee he hadn’t yet had a chance to visit the country.

Max Baucus, the Democratic senator from Montana selected to be ambassador to China, admitted: “I’m no real expert on China.”

Republican senator John McCain, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee that oversees ambassadorial appointments, described several of Obama’s appointees as “truly alarming”.

Traditionally, political supporters have accounted for about 30 per cent of presidential nominees to ambassadorial roles. Obama’s record stands at 37 per cent for his presidency, according to the American Foreign Service Association. The rate stands at 53 per cent for his second term in office.

In the hierarchy of US diplomatic appointments, Ireland hardly ranks up there with the UK, China or Russia and the Dublin post has most often been filled by individuals at or near retirement.

The continuing economic challenges facing Ireland and the unfinished business of peace in Northern Ireland means the incumbent will not be able to sit back and enjoy a leisurely term in a stately pile in the Phoenix Park.

The North, along with economic matters and the plight of new and past Irish emigrants to the US, will be in the in-tray for the next US ambassador to Ireland, whoever they might be and whenever they might be appointed.