Gary Hart denounces US abolition of NI special envoy role as ‘tragic’
Former envoy says ending role fits Trump’s pattern of international disengagement
Former special US special envoy to Northern Ireland, Gary Hart: Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Denouncing the proposal by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the former US senator said the envoy role would go at a critical time in Northern Ireland when it has no devolved government and there is Brexit uncertainty.
However, he said the plan to abolish the special envoy post “fits into a Trump pattern” and was “part of a much larger picture of disengagement internationally”.
“This is a secretary of state who seems to be making it up as he goes along,” Mr Hart told The Irish Times by telephone from his home in Colorado. “If they look at the UK generally and Brexit, all they see is complications and they run away.
“I don’t think they want to be engaged and if you get complexities like the Border issue, the last thing that Tillerson wants to worry about is the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is not on his radar.”
Mr Tillerson proposed in a letter on Monday to US senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the US senate committee on foreign relations, that the role of “Personal Representative for Northern Ireland Issues” be “retired”.
The highest-ranking US diplomat justified ending the role telling Mr Corker in his letter that “the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been implemented with a devolved national assembly in Belfast now in place”. No reference was made to the collapse of the power-sharing assembly.
“Legacy and future responsibilities” for Northern Ireland would be assigned to the State Department’s bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, Mr Tillerson said, and the budget of $50,000 (€42,000) supporting the Northern Ireland envoy role would be realigned within that bureau.
The role is one of almost 70 special envoy or similar positions that Mr Tillerson has said have outlived their purposes and can be handled by existing State Department bureaus.
The review is part of a top-to-bottom reorganisation of the State Department by the former oil executive. Mr Trump wants to impose deep spending cuts on diplomacy and foreign aid.
Pointing to the role played by past envoys, including former US senator George Mitchell who guided parties to the 1998 agreement, Mr Hart said that envoys not only “observe and participate” in Northern Ireland affairs but keep the Irish-American community informed “in a positive way”.
The former senator said he had remained in contact with the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, after stepping down as envoy – up to as recently as two weeks ago – as a member of a group of Irish-Americans concerned about Northern Ireland. A vacuum had been created by the absence of a US ambassador to Dublin and an envoy for Northern Ireland, leaving “a very sad situation,” he said.
“There is unreconstructed devolved government in Belfast, and Brexit is a critical, critical issue and there ought to be some person on the case who knows Ireland, who understands the issues and who can get along with the two governments, but we don’t have that person,” he said.
Mr Hart spoke of the difficulties of even establishment Republicans making representations to the White House on the need to fill critical roles at the State Department and ambassadorial positions. He said there were “whole areas of the world without adult supervision”.
“This is a systemic problem right now,” he said. “We are partly disengaging from the world and it is coming from a president who has no diplomatic experience and no foreign policy experience other than some experience conducting business deals overseas.
“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”