Irish-American fund intervened in US ambassador appointment

A ‘strongly worded’ letter sent from the influential philanthropic group to US Senate

The American Ireland Fund, the influential philanthropic group, sent a strongly worded letter of frustration to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the US Senate, urging them to confirm the new ambassador to Ireland and end a record delay in filling the role.

The letter was sent two days before the Senate finally approved president Obama's nominee Kevin O'Malley, a lawyer from St Louis, Missouri, ending the 21-month absence of an American ambassador in Dublin, the longest period that the post has been left vacant since Washington first appointed an diplomatic envoy to Ireland in 1927.

New York hotelier John Fitzpatrick, the fund's chairman, wrote to Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader of the senate, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader of the chamber, "on a matter of great concern to Ireland and Irish America, namely the appointment of an American Ambassador to Ireland."

“To many of us here and back in Ireland it is a matter of great bewilderment and not just a little annoyance that the post of ambassador has remained unfilled for so long,” wrote Mr Fitzpatrick in the strongly worded letter expressing the fund’s frustration.

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“This is unprecedented in Irish-America (sic) relations and undoubtedly, in the case of two such close nations.”

The businessman said that the fund was aware that the issue of the appointment of ambassador was due to be discussed by the Senate this week. He urged the two Senate leaders “to use your influence to reach a successful conclusion to these discussions.”

"At a time when our trading relations are so crucial, uncertainty besets the Northern Ireland Peace Process and great changes are occurring in the European Union, it would be reprehensible were this pivotal post to remain open for any longer," he said in the letter, a copy of which was seen by The Irish Times.

The fund, which has raised about $500 million (€390 million) for charities and other causes on the island of Ireland, is one of the most politically connected Irish-American groups in the United States.

Mr O'Malley, a long-time supporter of president Obama, was confirmed by the senate on Thursday night in a straightforward voice vote, just over two months after the White House named him as nominee for the job.

The grandson of emigrants from Westport, Co Mayo, Mr O'Malley, a former federal prosecutor, is the 27th US ambassador or envoy to Ireland and the first to be appointed from Missouri.

His appointment was confirmed among a number of White House appointments approved in the hours before the Senate broke for a recess that will continue until after the November 4th Congressional midterm elections.

Mr O’Malley’s confirmation had already been delayed by the August recess. He had eased through the early stages of the approval process in July when he comfortably answered questions tabled by members of the Senate foreign relations committee about the progress of the Irish economic recovery and the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

The confirmation paves the way for Mr O'Malley to take up the job last held by Irish-American businessman Dan Rooney, who stood down in December 2012. He can now move into Deerfield Residence, the ambassador's famous official home in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

Despite his appointment winning support from both parties in Congress, political gridlock between Democrats and Republicans has delayed the confirmation of numerous Obama nominees to their roles.

Missouri's two senators, Democrat Claire McCaskill, a close ally of Mr Obama, and Republican Roy Blunt, endorsed Mr O'Malley when he appeared before the Senate foreign relations committee.

The American Ireland Fund was concerned that a further delay in confirming a new ambassador could leave the role vacant for an even longer period at a critical time for the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Members of the Irish-American community have joined Congressman Joe Crowley, a Democrat from New York, in expressing concern about the delay in installing the new ambassador. They have pointed to the importance of having an American ambassador with strong ties to the White House to be involved in trying to restart the Northern Irish negotiations over flags, parades and issues of the past.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent