Coronavirus: Brexit a key issue, says US special envoy

Mick Mulvaney likely to focus on British plan for Troubles legacy matters

US special envoy for Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney: “The president knew that Brexit is going to be a big deal.”  Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg

US special envoy for Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney: “The president knew that Brexit is going to be a big deal.” Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg

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The US special envoy for Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, has said he intends to travel to Northern Ireland as soon as the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, as he prepares to assume his post.

Mr Mulvaney said a key focus for him in the coming weeks is how the Covid-19 crisis will impact on Brexit. The British government’s plan to deal with legacy issues from the Troubles, announced on March 18th, also promises to be a focus when normal life resumes, he said.

Mr Mulvaney, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in March, had been scheduled to make his first visit to Northern Ireland as US special envoy next month. But the coronavirus has put that plan on hold.

“I have been using the time to familiarise myself with the issues. Obviously, Covid-19 is the focus of everyone’s attention right now. It’s a very fluid situation,” he said, speaking from his home in South Carolina, the state he represented in Congress before joining the Trump administration.

Like millions of people across the United States, the former White House chief of staff has been working from home where he is based with his wife and three children, as states have imposed stay-at-home restrictions. He says he will visit Northern Ireland “as soon as the door opens”.

Interest in position

The Irish-American politician has been communicating with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis in the past few weeks.

He has also spoken to previous holders of the post, such as Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was appointed by George W Bush.

Mr Mulvaney (52), who reportedly had expressed a long-held interest in the position that had been vacant since the end of the Obama presidency, said his appointment was a measure of the Trump administration’s interest in Northern Ireland and Brexit in particular. He said Mr Trump views the post as akin to the role held by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who he appointed to manage the White House strategy on the Middle East.

“The president knew that Brexit is going to be a big deal – it’s a big deal just generally, and in terms of North-South relations – so he said to me: ‘Jared is going to go and take care of the Palestinians and Israelis, you make sure things go smoothly over there,” says Mr Mulvaney. The husband of Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is widely viewed to have had minimal success with bringing peace to the Middle East.

Trump and Pompeo

Mr Mulvaney visited Northern Ireland in February ahead of his appointment, where he met with First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office, Madeline Alessandri. He also met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and US ambassador Ed Crawford, a Trump appointee, at Farmleigh.

The role of Northern Ireland envoy falls under the remit of the US state department, and Mr Mulvaney will report to Mr Trump and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Mr Mulvaney was replaced as Mr Trump’s chief of staff by congressman Mark Meadows last month. Like many in the administration, Mr Mulvaney played down the risk of coronavirus as recently as late February.

Asked if he missed working at the White House, he replied: “I’m always happy to be home, but it’s kind of strange to be out of Washington at this time.”

He says he still talks to the president and points out that Mr Meadows is a friend of his. Both were co-founders of the Freedom Caucus on Capitol Hill, a group of conservative, Republican lawmakers.

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