President Obama's nominee for US ambassador to Ireland said he doesn't expect any dramatic change in the Irish programme of economic austerity, but said the dust "really hasn't quite settled yet" on the issue following the recent local and European elections.
Asked at his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee about post-election anti-austerity and anti-EU sentiment in Ireland, Missouri lawyer Kevin O'Malley said: "Everyone is still examining where it is."
Ireland was very committed to the EU and austerity plans that “make their ascent from their financial crisis so successful”, he said. “There was a great deal of frustration expressed during the elections, but I think that the Irish have adopted very firm course,” he said. “That course has proven to be successful and I don’t anticipate that there will be any dramatic changes.”
Asked whether there was resentment towards Ireland’s low corporate tax rate of 12.5 per cent, Mr O’Malley said there were other reasons why Ireland was attractive to US multinationals.
He did not know, he said, whether the Obama administration was opposed to this low tax rate and US companies setting up in Ireland.
Mr O'Malley told senators under questioning that the recent arrest and release of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for questioning in relation to the 1972 murder of Belfast widow Jean McConville had compelled the US to urge the Northern Irish parties to adopt the Haass proposals to deal with issues of the past.
“There needs to be a system in place that deals with these issues as they are going to continue to arise,” he said.
If confirmed as ambassador he would try to convince the parties to commit to proposals suggested by former US diplomat Richard Haass to have "a comprehensive and cohesive way to deal with these very troubling, emotional issues", he said.
Mr O'Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that the Belfast Agreement had brought years of reduced strife, but that more work had to be done. "While real, tangible progress has been made, much more needs to be done in order to completely devolve the government to achieve a vibrant economy and to create a pluralist shared society in Northern Ireland, " he said.
He intends to meet political leaders in Northern Ireland to figure out “all the sticking points” and to find out why the Haass agreement “which had been widely praised didn’t go through”.
Everyone was relieved that the North’s marching season has passed off relatively peacefully, but he hoped the parades issue could be resolved permanently under the Haass proposals so people “wouldn’t be on edge” every year during the marching season, he told senators.
Mr Obama trusted him to be "both steadfast and flexible, standing by our convictions while seeking conciliation" in Northern Ireland, he said.
At a short confirmation hearing before the Senate committee, two senators from Mr O'Malley's home state, Missouri - Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt - praised his community work and his long-standing experience as a trial lawyer and prosecutor.
Referring to the record 19-month delay in the appointment of a US ambassador in Dublin, Mr Blunt, echoing Ms McCaskill’s comments, said: “We have waited long enough to have an ambassador to Ireland, so things can be repeated here for someone as qualified as Mr O’Malley.”
Speaking about the strong bonds between Ireland and the US, Mr O'Malley, whose grandparents came from Westport in Co Mayo, said he had enjoyed travelling extensively in the country, "criss-crossing Ireland from Dublin to Galway, from Cork to Mayo".
Ireland was "more than just a place - it was a way of life: hard work, spiritual values, family, determination and wit", he said. Acknowledging the tradition of Irish emigration to the US, he said there was "an unbreakable bond" between the people of the countries. "The sons and daughters of Ireland are edged into the cornerstones of the United States of America," he said.
Mr O'Malley noted that 30 per cent of Ireland's population was under the age of 24, and how the country was now more multicultural than 50 years ago when President John F Kennedy visited - with one in six Irish people being born outside Ireland. "It is my intention that if confirmed as the United States ambassador to Ireland, to broaden and strengthen our special bonds, to increase the opportunities for trade and prosperity and to work for a just and a permanent peace," he said.
“No American, and particularly no Irish-American, could ask for a more meaningful undertaking.”