Should Donald Trump appoint ambassador to Dublin and envoy to Belfast? For and against

Does US have role in Brexit and North or is Ireland better off with lax relations?

US president Donald Trump: The gap between Washington envoys in Dublin is now one of the longest since 1790. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

US president Donald Trump: The gap between Washington envoys in Dublin is now one of the longest since 1790. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg



In January 2017 US president Donald Trump removed Kevin F O’Malley from his position as US ambassador to Ireland. In doing so as soon as he became president, he ignored the long-standing practice that a US ambassador remained in place until a new appointee was ready to take up the post. Trump has not yet seen fit to nominate a replacement and there have been suggestions he does not believe Ireland needs a US ambassador.

In that year, President George Washington, acting on the advice of secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, appointed the Scotch-Irish Presbyterian William Knox as his consul in Dublin.

Knox had excellent credentials for the post. He had helped in the fight for the Republic and had close family and political ties in Washington through his brother Henry who was secretary of war. The Knox family had sailed from Derry to Boston in 1729 and the brothers had a good grasp of Irish affairs.

Following Irish independence, the Dublin consulate was upgraded to a legation in 1927 and finally to an embassy in 1950. Since 1927 only one career US state department official has been appointed to head the Dublin office. All the others have been political appointees, personally selected by the president. Recent ambassadors have included Dan Rooney of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, Jean Kennedy Smith of that well-known political family, congresswoman Margaret Heckler, and William V Shannon, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times.

In addition to appointing an ambassador to Dublin, recent presidents, beginning with Bill Clinton, have appointed a special envoy for Northern Ireland. There have been six such appointments, including senators George Mitchell and Gary Hart, and ambassadors Richard Haass and Mitchell Reiss. In August last year, the state department spokesman announced that that position was being “retired”.

There are, however, indications that some within the Trump administration may be having second thoughts. Following a meeting in Washington on February 23rd between former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, Tillerson said that, with the White House, he was then considering possible names for appointment to the position. There is no information yet on the attitude of new secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

Overseas policy success

The US contribution to peace in Northern Ireland has been a significant if underrated Washington foreign policy success. It began with Jimmy Carter who – prompted by Tip O’Neill, then speaker of the House of Representatives, and other congressional leaders – committed the US for the first time in 1977 to an active collaboration with the British and Irish governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland to search for a settlement.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan was instrumental in persuading British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement with then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, an agreement which provided the basis for building the subsequent peace process.

The best was, however, yet to come. With inspired intervention by ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and monumental work over an extended period by George Mitchell, the British and Irish governments and the main political parties in Northern Ireland signed the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday 1998. This made possible a Northern Ireland powersharing administration and substantially ended the violence of the previous 30 years.

Early in 2017, the powersharing administration in Belfast collapsed and efforts to date to restore it have been unsuccessful. In all that time, there has been neither a US ambassador in Dublin nor a US special envoy for Northern Ireland.

Irish interests in the US are, of course, looked after primarily by Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall and his colleagues in Washington. Traditionally, however, US ambassadors in Dublin have enjoyed privileged access to the White House and have not been shy about using it in the interests of Ireland. They have, for instance, been helpful in securing favourable US air rights for Ireland, in winning pre-clearance facilities for Shannon and Dublin airports, and, in the case of Kennedy Smith, persuading Bill Clinton to spark the peace process to life by giving Gerry Adams a US visa.

Foreign direct investment

There are, of course, many selfish US reasons to have an ambassador in Dublin. US corporations have substantial investments in Ireland. It is an important location for US foreign direct investment and, when Brexit happens, Ireland will become an important bridge to Europe for US policymakers and for US corporations seeking access to EU markets.

In recent years, US ambassadors in Dublin have been very effective lobbyists for US interests. They have done so in a low-key way by establishing trustworthy personal relationships with key Irish politicians. Ambassador Kevin O’Malley built on his shared Co Mayo roots and interest in golf with Enda Kenny. Golf was not their only topic of conversation on or off the course. Kennedy Smith found an unusual way into the confidence of taoiseach Albert Reynolds. He was a non-alcohol drinker but was addicted to late-night pots of tea in his office. The ambassador took to dropping in to share it with him and out of their late night chats there emerged important US developments in relation to Northern Ireland.

Is it too much to hope that Trump will be persuaded to acknowledge the role of diplomacy in the long-standing relationship between Ireland and the US, and appoint an ambassador in Dublin? It would be a pity to break a link that goes back so far.

  • Seán Donlon was Irish ambassador to the US from 1987 to 1981


At a recent hearing in the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives, a Democratic congressman urged secretary of state Mike Pompeo to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Thirty-two members of Congress signed a letter requesting the same, and Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald have stated support. This is perplexing, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been wise in not seeking a special envoy.

There hasn’t been a real need for a special envoy in more than a decade. In a book published during the 2008 US presidential campaign, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote about the positive role George Mitchell played as Bill Clinton’s special envoy but also warned that “such tools can be overused”. There has long been a sense in the state department that special envoys had become too numerous, and therefore not so special.

While calling for special envoys is easy, one should be careful what one wishes for, particularly with a Trump administration.

To suggest that US government involvement is necessary to bring about the restoration of Stormont, or that the US has any negotiating role related to Brexit, is wrong, paternalistic and possibly dangerous.

On Stormont, if the UK government would just stop paying salaries to politicians that haven’t been in session for nearly a year-and-a-half, minds would focus. The US isn’t needed; Northern Ireland leaders simply need to lead.

On Brexit, Donald Trump may be more pro-Brexit than the British prime minister. He said in an interview at Davos in January that the European Union is not all it’s cracked up to be and that he “would have taken a tougher stand in getting out”. Last year, Trump’s ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, said that he thought the British made the right decision in voting for Brexit. Does one really believe that Trump cares whether or not there’s a hard border? He loves borders. There is no reason to believe that a Trump envoy would be helpful in such important and nuanced negotiations. It is highly unlikely that he would appoint someone like George Mitchell.

Erratic behaviour

Of course, much remains to be done in Northern Ireland and the US Congress should pay close attention and be helpful where possible. But with the erratic behaviour demonstrated by this president, it may be wiser to leave these matters to professional diplomats in the department of state.

If I were the Irish Government, I wouldn’t even be overly eager for a US ambassador to be appointed. Do you really want someone in Phoenix Park who will regularly remind Trump about Ireland’s low corporate tax regime? Remember his comment to the Taoiseach during the St Patrick’s Day festivities at the White House? The president joked: “Whenever there’s a problem you call – we’ll solve it,” and then added, “except trade. They’ve got those taxes so low . . . you’re a tough one to compete with with the taxes.”

As Cliff Taylor noted in this paper at the time, “Many a true word is spoken in jest, as the old saying goes, and many a barb is dressed up as bonhomie.”

A US ambassador in Ireland would likely be charged with working to get American multinationals to return to the US. In an interview with Jason O’Brien for the Irish Independent, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said of her boss: “He hasn’t been shy about the fact that he wants to build up the jobs market in the US, and to bring back good talent from overseas. Ireland is one of those places.”

As the parties in Northern Ireland frequently and mistakenly think only in terms of a zero-sum game, Trump feels that way about trade, jobs and taxation – for America to win, the rest of the world has to lose. Even with the current threat of an escalating trade war, I don’t see Trump worrying about Ireland, which he feels is doing well at America’s expense.

Late in 2017 and early 2018, there was a trade dispute between Boeing and Bombardier which threatened Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturer. While Bombardier ultimately prevailed when the US International Trade Commission ruled in its favour, Trump officials did not consider the impact on Northern Ireland in backing Boeing. It was reported by James Moore in the Independent that Theresa May’s “frantic phone calls to the Oval Office . . . achieved precisely nothing. Ditto the pow-wows with Robert ‘Woody’ Wood Johnson”.

Border and violence 

And US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross took Trump’s “America First” line as the administration had threatened to impose massive duties. In this battle between airline manufacturers, the impact on the Northern Ireland economy was of no concern to the Trump administration.

I am also concerned about the suggestions that a hard border – as unhelpful, problematic and undesirable as it would be – would necessarily lead to a return to violence. A hard border would likely result in great damage to the economy in Northern Ireland and violence would be counter-productive to any hopes for a united Ireland. Demands for an immediate Border poll are equally counter-productive. Many moderate unionists voted to remain, and it is more likely that some could come to see the value of a united Ireland when the British government inevitably leaves them high and dry after Brexit.

When Bill Clinton ran for president, some Irish Americans demanded that he promise to appoint a special envoy as soon as he took office. When he became president, both taoiseach Albert Reynold and British prime minister John Major told the new president that an envoy wouldn’t be helpful at that moment in time. Clinton rightly held off.

US members of Congress should take the lead from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on this occasion as well.

  • Trina Vargo is the founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance and is currently writing a book about the relationship
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