Congressman Richard Neal at the Washington, D.C. memorial service for Martin McGuinness in July.
By Ray O’Hanlon
President Trump’s committing to the appointment of a U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland was earning early praise a day after the president heard a plea for such a move from Congressman Richard Neal.
The Massachusetts Democrat and co-chair of the Friends of Ireland was sitting beside President Trump at a White House meeting Tuesday when he took the opportunity to make a pitch for an envoy.
The meeting between the president and Congress members was concerned with tax reform.
Rep. Neal is ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee and in that capacity was sitting immediately to the president’s right during the meeting.
The president told Neal that he would commit to filling the position which has been vacant since former senator Gary Hart took his leave of the envoy job in January when Trump took office.
Neal, according to a release from his office, had used the moment of proximity to urge President Trump not to eliminate the position of Special Envoy to Northern Ireland.
Citing concerns over Brexit and the suspension of the power-sharing government in Belfast, Neal said it was critical that the United States continued to have a dedicated representative in the region working with the five main political parties and the Irish and British governments.
President Trump, said the release, “agreed and made a commitment to fill the vacant post."
Neal then confirmed the President’s decision with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Said Neal: “I told President Trump that eliminating the position of Special Envoy would send a message around the world that the United States is no longer engaged in the region.
“As we approach the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, America must continue to play a meaningful role in the peace process.
“With the political institutions in the North suspended, the United States should have a dedicated representative to help prevent further political instability. I also believe we can make an important contribution to the Brexit debate and its implications on the island of Ireland.
“At this critical time, I am pleased that President Trump promised not to eliminate the Special Envoy post.”
Rep. Neal and more than 30 of his House of Representatives colleagues had sent a bipartisan letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging the Trump administration not to eliminate the Northern Ireland Special Envoy position.
Secretary Tillerson has proposed the elimination of a number of U.S. envoy postings around the world, including the North job.
If President Trump follows through, the North position at least will be saved.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians welcomed the president’s commitment to retaining it.
Said a statement: “In making this decision, countermanding the earlier intentions of the State Department to eliminate this post, President Trump has reaffirmed America’s leadership in the cause of peace and justice in Northern Ireland.
“The AOH also expresses their profound gratitude to Congressman Richard Neal and the members of the Friends of Ireland caucus for espousing the continuing need for a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland and working to ensure America’s Good Friday Agreement legacy of leadership is not squandered for a de minimis cost saving of $50,000.
“The Hibernians now ask President Trump to quickly appoint and empower a Special Envoy that can finish the job started by the first Special Envoy George Mitchell nearly twenty years ago. While there has been relative peace in the two decades since the agreement was signed, it is a fragile peace built on the shaky foundation of an agreement incompletely implemented.
“Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, the legacies of the past have yet to have been addressed with justice and there is still no Bill of Rights for the community of Northern Ireland.
The recent call by a Northern Irish resident’s association that a new housing development be ‘filled up with people from the loyalist/unionist community’ shows that the bright promise of parity of esteem expressed in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement appears to be retrogressing to the prejudices of 1969.”
And the AOH statement added: “The fact that the devolve Northern Irish parliament is currently in collapse, that Brexit threatens to disproportionately impact a fragile Northern Irish economy and repartition the isle of Ireland with borders both physical and psychological all point to the need to cement the foundations of peace in Northern Ireland by fully delivering on the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement.
“The recent ‘confidence and supply’ agreement struck by the British Government and Northern Ireland’s DUP strains the limits of credulity that the British Government can address the challenges of fully implementing the Good Friday Agreement with the ‘rigorous impartiality’ the agreement calls for; a U.S. Special Envoy is needed to restore balance and credibility to the peace process.
“President Trump, who takes pride in ‘the art of the deal,’ must now move expeditiously to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland who can close the deal for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland built on the foundations of justice and parity of esteem.”
The president’s commitment was also welcomed by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.
“I want to welcome the news from Congressman Richard Neal that the White House has promised to retain the position of Special Envoy to Ireland and to the peace process,” said Adams in a statement.
“This decision builds on the recent bi-partisan letter from the Friends of Ireland group in the Congress to the U.S. Secretary of State jointly sponsored by Congress members Neal and Crowley. 32 members of both parties in the Congress signed the letter calling for the U.S. administration to appoint a U.S. Special Envoy.
“Over the last 25 years the U.S. and its succession of Special Envoys have made an important contribution to the peace process. An Envoy can play an important role in ensuring that the Good Friday Agreement is fully implemented and in helping to chart a course through the difficulties that will increase as a result of Brexit.”