With role of US ambassador still unfilled, what’s going on behind the scenes?

America Letter: The inordinate delay in the appointment is frustrating Irish-Americans

 President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina, with former US ambassador Dan Rooney at a reception for members of the diplomatic corps at Áras an Uachtaráin last year. Photograph: Alan Betson

President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina, with former US ambassador Dan Rooney at a reception for members of the diplomatic corps at Áras an Uachtaráin last year. Photograph: Alan Betson


The only time there was a longer delay in the appointment of a new US ambassador to Ireland was in 1935, and then the official title of the position was envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Irish Free State.

Dan Rooney stood down as ambassador on December 14th, 2012, after more than three years in Dublin, making it almost a year since the US has had an ambassador in Ireland.

By the time Alvin Mansfield Owsley was appointed US envoy in May 1935 by Franklin D Roosevelt, it had been 13 months since the death of his predecessor.

The role of ambassadors is important in the exchange of information and maintaining good relations between countries. Talking directly to the US ambassador lets the Government know that it has the ear of someone who in turn has the ear of the US president. Access is everything.

At a time when Ireland’s economic recovery rests on foreign direct investment, for the most part from the US, and when the hopes of thousands of undocumented Irish in the US rest on immigration reform, the US ambassador’s role takes on even greater importance.

Remember the bashing Ireland got in May when a US congressional panel slammed iPhone-maker Apple for its racy tax structures in Ireland? A well-timed meeting between a member of the Government and a politically connected US ambassador could have helped soften those blows.

It is understandable, therefore, that there should be much hand-wringing and frustration among Irish-Americans at the inordinate delay in the new appointment. Irish lawyer and lobbyist Brian O’Dwyer has described it as a “slap in the face” to the millions of Irish- Americans who supported US president Barack Obama.

While it is not the most important role in the US diplomatic service, the ambassadorship is attractive in a country full of politically connected Irish-Americans who wear their Irish heritage so proudly.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, lawyer Mark Tuohey and former Missouri congressman Russ Carnahan have all been linked to the vacant ambassador’s job on the Washington cocktail party circuit and elsewhere.

The raging speculation is that two candidates did not pass the vetting process or withdrew their names – in other words, they did not pass the vetting process – and that a third name is being considered.

Vetting can be onerous and protracted. One long-serving diplomat told me that even though they had cleared a diplomatic check many years previously, it took months for them to be vetted for a new role. Different answers to the same questions, asked decades apart, can be scrutinised, dragging out the process. One can only imagine the hoops that a non-political business figure must jump through.

The febrile partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill is not helping. Paranoid that those dastardly Republicans will find dirt to block yet another appointment, the Democratic Obama administration is not rushing to fill political jobs.

Many coveted ambassador roles have been filled by political appointees or big donors. Washington DC newspaper The Hill reported in July that almost a third of Obama’s ambassadors installed in the first half of the year were political appointees, more than the previous three presidents, and that at least 19 Obama campaign contributors and political allies have landed ambassador gigs.

“It’s a great house,” Bill Clinton is said to have told Mike Sullivan when he tapped him to become his top diplomat in Ireland in 1999, selling the merits of living in the US ambassador’s residence in the Phoenix Park (the former Wyoming governor had supported Clinton’s run for president).

Ireland shouldn’t feel like an isolated case; the White House has yet to name a new ambassador to France, arguably a more strategically important role than the Irish gig. But unlike Ireland, the existing ambassador, Charles Rivkin, has stayed on in Paris to be hauled into frank tête-à-têtes with French president François Hollande about National Security Agency spying on French citizens.

State of relations
Asked on Wednesday if the delay in the appointment of the new ambassador to Ireland marked a change in Irish-American relations or the relegation of Dublin as a foreign policy priority, US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “absolutely not”.

“I would be personally outraged as an Irish-American myself,” she added, pointing me to the White House for any specific updates on the process to find an ambassador.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the US president’s national security council, said she could not comment on “the details of the process” and there was no announcement to make at this point. She noted Obama’s comments on the “incredible bond” between the US and Ireland when he met Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Oval Office during this year’s shamrock summit in March.

It was highly unusual for a US ambassador to Ireland not to be appointed by or on St Patrick’s Day. It would be unprecedented for an ambassador not to be named for a second consecutive St Patrick’s Day.