The United States has been urged to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland at a congressional hearing on the Belfast Agreement in Washington.
Speaking at a special hearing to reaffirm the peace agreement held by a sub-committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, former Northern Ireland special envoy Mitchell Reiss said there is a "real need" for an envoy.
“I believe that the United States can once more play a crucial role in helping the people in the North. The United States brings a long track record of proven diplomatic success, has the ability to help the political parties and leaders in London and Dublin with the challenges” facing the region, he said.
His calls were reiterated by Professor Monica McWilliams of Ulster University and former deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly Jane Morrice, who also addressed the bipartisan committee.
The position of Northern Ireland envoy remains unfilled since the departure of Mick Mulvaney, who was former president Donald Trump's appointee to the role.
Outlining the issues still facing Northern Ireland 23 years after the signing of the agreement, Mr Reiss said the US can “bring a sense of possibility” to the conversation. “The UK and Ireland are our friends and allies. It’s possible to say things to them in private that they need to hear and still have credibility.”
Ms McWilliams thanked the United States for its steadfast interest in Northern Ireland. “When that voice speaks up, people listen,” she said of the US.
Ms Morrice, a leading figure in the Women's Coalition movement in the North, also called for greater cooperation between the US nd the European Union. In particular, she called for the establishment of a special reconciliation fund to focus on reconciliation.
Describing herself as a “European unionist,” she said she opposed Brexit and comes from a Unionist background.
‘Scenes of violence’
Among her suggestions was that the custom checks included in the Northern Ireland protocol could be moved to the Scotland-England border. “This new Celtic protocol could serve as a starting point for an association of Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland working together in the single market.”
The hearing by the subcommittee on Europe, Energy the Environment and Cyber is the latest indication of renewed US interest in Northern Ireland.
Opening the hearing, subcommittee chair Bill Keating of Massachusetts said that the recent violence in Northern Ireland had "stopped many of us in our tracks, me included...With Brexit now behind us, we are seeing the impacts of the withdrawal in shipping ports, in unstocked supermarkets, in the streets of Northern Ireland."
The scenes of violence had “reminded us that peace in Europe is not something to be taken for granted. For this reason I’ve called this hearing to reaffirm the Good Friday Agreement and better understand the underlying tensions and current situation on the ground.”
Asked by Congresswoman Ann Wagner about the driving forces behind the recent violence in Northern Ireland, Ms McWilliams said there was "a range of reasons," including some loyalist communities feeling threatened about their identity. "Political leaders need to calm things down at times," she said, saying that some leaders appeared to be "standing back."
Mr Reiss said paramilitarism in the North is a “persistent threat”, noting “a direct correlation” between paramilitarism and social deprivation, including issues such as educational under attainment and poverty. While “you have to get the criminal element off the street,” he said that the broader issue of social deprivation needs to be addressed.
He also noted that the structures needed to deal with the legacy of the past included in the Stormont House agreement had not been implemented.
“Currently there is no consensus in Northern Ireland - as to how these legacy bodies should function,” he said.
Meanwhile, the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Daniel O’Connell, called for all sides to “recommit to the complete implementation” of the Belfast Agreement. “History shows that peace in Ireland only advances when the United States signals it is a US priority. The United States must send such a signal now,” he said.